Miss Kendrick's Story by Nancy: Thursday's Child

portrait by Linn

 

9:00 PM   An August Friday   1941

“You been thinking on it, Mister Kendrick.”

She heard the crush of cushion and pictured the old couch sinking low to scrape the plywood floor as her pregnant mamma sat beside her daddy.  She smiled to think of his arm stretching across the back of the sofa, rubbing her mamma’s shoulders. She didn’t have to peek to see it.

“It’s right for me and Detta, I know, Flora Mae, but sometimes I’m wishing Emalee’d never sent us that letter.”

“A job, Tybee, with good pay, and a school in New York City for our Detta.  It’d be more than we could ever hope for here ’bouts.  A true miracle.”

“And I’ll be saving every penny, y’all know that, and sending the ticket just as soon’s the baby’s born.”

“Only two more months now.  And Momma and Jesse and Sarah Ann here to help with the birthing.  Pa and the brothers looking out for me.”

“Yet I’m sitting here wishing ya’ll could come now.  Wrong to be missing Detta’s first day of school, ya’ll down here and us up there.  We’ll be worrying, Miz Kendrick.  Detta and me’ll be worrying about you every minute.” 

“Don’t think I’m forgetting your mangled foot, Tybee Kendrick.  How’re you gonna walk the stairs and over those train tracks?”

“Aw, Flora Mae, the subway’s a sight less dangerous than fighting overseas.  Been how many years since the accident and I’m used to walking safe.  Josiah’s conducting on those trains going on near four years now and he’s doing fine.  Don’t fret yourself.”

“Then we’re accepting the good Lord’s doing - the job opening and school about to start. None of us’ll be doubting the Lord’s ways, now will we?  And before you know it, I’ll be there, and the new one sleeping peaceable, and I’ll be washing and pressing Detta’s dresses and making your lunches, Tybee.”

More sounds, as though her parents had moved even closer on the worn old divan.

“Living in a basement, though, Flora Mae.  Won’t you miss the sunshine?  Arkansas ain’t much but she sure gives out a lot of sunshine.  ‘Course we’ll have indoor plumbing in New York City.  ’Magine that, Flora Mae … the outhouse on the inside.”  She heard the wonder in their brief silence.  “I reckon that’ll make up some for the windows.”

“And I’m thinking our Detta will be upstairs with her cousins most of the time, or in a classroom looking up at those buildings they say reach clear to the clouds.  That’ll be all that matters.  And it sure is a blessing Emmalee found a place in that building where she and Josiah live and then her promising to look after Detta when you’re at work.  Living in the basement, none of that’s important as long you have that good job and Detta and the new one are all right.”

“I can dream of you and the baby coming to join us.  Think of the fun of finding our own place, Flora Mae, us and the kids, space for all the babies we’ll be wanting.  And someday windows, big windows to see the sun … in every room … that’s the promise I’m making.”

She lay a while longer on the small bed in the darkest corner of the two-room house, pretending to sleep, listening for more.  There was no more.  Tomorrow they’d explain it to her again.  Starting first grade in a big city school.  The chance to learn as much as she wanted.  Her dreams were good, they’d say. They wanted them for her. She’d be a teacher someday.  All she’d have to do was study hard in her new school.  If only she weren’t so scared. Leaving home, leaving Mama, and she hardly remembered Aunt Emalee or Uncle Josiah or her cousins.  But she could see herself, nodding, holding back the tears, letting her father take her hand, brave even close-up to the black, steam-belching locomotive.

She wouldn’t try to imagine waving goodbye to her mother.

 

9:00 AM   A November Wednesday   1946

“I had hoped to speak to Mr. Kendrick about Bernadette, Mrs. Douglass.”

“I sent Wallace to the school with a note to tell you my brother got called in to work overtime, but Wallace said the building was already locked up for the night.  These days, a body can’t turn down extra money.  I’m sure sorry.  Tybee, too.  If you could tell me what’s needing said, he’ll be hearing it first thing when he gets home.”

“It must be hard for your brother, raising a daughter by himself.  Your niece is a very quiet girl but I can tell you do a wonderful job being a mother to her, as well as to your own children.”

Detta was eavesdropping.  She knew it was wrong, but, sometimes, when she suspected it was going to be grown-up talk about her, she couldn’t stop herself.  And so far, she’d never heard any of the bad things folks said you were bound to hear.  Besides, it was true that Aunt Emalee was a good mama to her, and each night,  when Detta prayed, she told God that if He needed her Mama and baby brother in Heaven, well, it was thoughtful of Him to be fixing up such a good substitute for her down here. 

“That’s very kind of you to say, Miz MacLachlan.  I do love that girl like she’s my very own.  We’re all so proud of her.  She never gives a reason for worry.  My Mariah and Wallace, those two could take a lesson from her.”

Both women laughed.

“That’s part of what I hoped to discuss with Mr. Kendrick.  His daughter is halfway through 5th grade now, an eager student, a hard worker, and she will go far, I’m sure, and all her teachers agree.  I came tonight to speak to him about her musical abilities.  And about possibly arranging for her to have some private lessons.”

“Lessons?  Oh.”

Detta held her breath.

“The school has an old upright piano she and her teacher could use.”

“But private lessons cost a lot, I imagine. My brother has some money put by, but I don’t know if he’s thinking to spend it on piano lessons, Miz MacLachlan.  He’s planning on getting a place for him and Detta one of these days.”

“I’d be willing to give the lessons.  I want to.  We could work out the details, I’m sure.  Will you ask him, tell him what we’ve discussed?  I’ve been a Music Appreciation teacher for more than a few years and I’ve known some children who have a talent, a feel for the music.  Our Bernadette is one of those.  She has a very special gift that oughtn’t to be wasted, or ignored.  She’s enthusiastic now. Later, who can tell?”

Behind a bedroom door, her little girl’s heart beat so hard she scooted back for fear it would be heard by the women.  Lessons.  With Mrs. MacLachlan.  She couldn’t breathe through the excitement.  She sat, knees against her chest, dreaming musical dreams.

 

8:00 PM   A December Tuesday   1952

“If only you were here, Flora Mae, sitting alongside me in this high school auditorium, listening to our girl playing.  The music she’s giving, free to everyone.  And the applause … you’d be sobbing for joy, even up in Heaven.  She’s a star, your baby girl. I’m missing you something awful, Flora Mae. If only …”

 

7:00 PM   A May Monday   1954 

“Eat your supper, Detta.”

“I’m late, Aunt Emalee.”

“Miz MacLachlan’ll wait an extra minute for you, Honey.  She won’t be starting the Spring Songfest without her accompanist being there.”

“But, Daddy, she’s paying me, or the school is, and all those little kids are nervous enough without wondering if I’m going to show up.”

“You’ve been in those university classes all day.  Did you stop for lunch, Girl?  Can’t be living on studying and practicing music.”

“But, Daddy …”

“Stop arguing, Detta, and chew.”

 

4:00 PM   A July Friday   1954

“How is he, Doctor Alcott?”

“It’s a cracked rib, a sprained ankle and some bangs and bruises.  No concussion.  He’ll be okay, Detta.  Some time off to heal, and you and your Aunt and Uncle and cousins to fuss over him.  He’ll be just fine.”

“Dr. Alcott, we sure are thankful you came so quick.  You’ve been good to us, all these years … since helping bring our Wallace into this world.  You’re here when Mariah has her asthma and every time one of us gets sick.  We can’t ever make it up, but we’ll pay what we can.”

“Emalee,” he said, “I have to hang around to see how that son of yours turns out now, don’t I?  But if you insist on paying me, I’ll take half my fee in some of that dinner I can smell cooking.

“I do wonder about your belly, eating from different kitchens every night.”

“Do you think I look sick?  Should I see a doctor?”

Even Tybee chuckled, then grimaced.

“Daddy?”

“I’m fine, Detta.  Don’t worry yourself.  Did y’all find who dragged me off the tracks?  I owe the man more’n thanks.  That locomotive, with the big E blurring as it came closer and closer, is the last I remember.”

“Stanley thought it might’ve been two people, Tybee, two kids maybe,” Josiah said.  “But they disappeared soon as they made you safe.  He’s not sure, but he thinks he saw two small shadows running off into the tunnel.”

“May the good Lord bless ‘em for me then.”

~

That house for him and Detta never did get bought.  Any extra money went for lessons and for college tuition.  They were comfortable in the basement, and it wasn’treally below ground like living in a root cellar back in Arkansas, he always preached to his daughter.  As long as they were there, it seemed they were waiting and Flora Mae might still come with the baby.  There were windows, though not nearly as fine or as large as he’d promised, and in only one room.  The little bathroom had a vent fan.  His room had an old window frame, hanging on one wall, with scenes of the seasons showing in the four glass panes.  Detta had given it to him when she was in 6th grade, the window picked from a neighbor’s garbage, the pictures her artwork.  He remembered how she’d helped him to hang it.  Her room got the morning light from its small, high-set double windows.  And she woke to it as though that light came from her, to show the world a better way to go.  Her father marveled at all she was, such a good girl, so smart, educated, studying her music at Hunter College, day and night, it seemed. And her young man, a music student, too.  The family liked him and Emmalee had him come to Sunday dinner almost every week.  As for himself, the subways had been good to him and he’d have a nice pension when he was ready to retire.  Life was full, except for the empty place that belonged forever to Flora Mae.

 

10:00 AM   A January Sunday   1955

“It’ll be okay, Detta.  I can get the money from my father. My buddy says a guy named Jeff’ll do it.  Says he’s done it dozens of times.  You just say the word … it’ll be taken care of.   What’s the matter?”

She heard the cajoling cadence, the edgy impatience.  The anger?

The matter?  You’re asking me what’s the matter?  I’m pregnant, Len.  Pregnant.  It’s a baby in here.  That’s the matter.  My whole life is ruined, that’s the matter.  What will my daddy say?  And Aunt Emalee.  I’m so ashamed.”

She was crying and she didn’t want to cry.  This demanded a cool head, logic, not emotions running wild.  But then, she thought, pregnant women were supposed to be volatile, weren’t they?

“Look, Detta, I know it’s hard.  I know.  I’m part of this, too, remember. But here’s the answer.  I can get the money.  You just have to go and … it’ll all be fine again.  Life goes back to the way it was.  Spring semester starts in two weeks and we go to classes, we practice, we perform.  It’s just a memory and then it’s not even that.  We forget it happened.  Come on.  Here’s the address.  Do what you know is right. What you have to do.”

She took it, a lined sheet torn from a spiral memo pad.  It wasn’t Len’s handwriting.  He’d gotten it from that buddy of his, who claimed Jeff had done this before, which meant other girls had been to see Jeff.  Other girls had chosen this ‘answer’.

“Okay.  You’re right.  I’ll take care of … it.”

“Yeah.  That’s good.  That’s good, Detta.  You know I love you.  And I’m sorry this happened.  But we can fix it.  And then it’s you and me again, just you and me.”

“You’ll come with me?”

“Sure.  Sure.  Just let me know when you set it up.  Of course I’ll come.”

“Okay.”  She turned away from him to ask, “Len, we … have … to do this?”

“It’s the only way, Detta.”

 

11:00 PM   A January Tuesday   1955

“Detta?  I thought that was you.”  He’d parked the Buick and was about to cross the street to his office when he noticed her leaning against the wrought iron railing.

“Hello, Dr. Alcott.”  She hesitated, “I, uh …”  She burst into tears. 

“Come in out of the cold.”

They sat in the consultation room.  A clock on the desk between them counted the night-quiet seconds.

 “How’s everyone at home?”

“Fine.  They’re all …”  She began to cry again. 

 “I want to help.  Will you let me help?”

She caught her breath.  “I just found out I’m pregnant.  I’m 19, Dr. Alcott.  And Len says the only thing to do is …  But I can’t.  I can’t kill this innocent baby. And I don’t know what to do.  I have school.  My music.  And if my father finds out …”

She wasn’t aware of his hand on her shoulder until she heard him speaking.

“You need time to think this through.  I know a place you could go.  Somewhere to be alone and somewhere you can find counsel if you want it.  My friend, and he’s a good listener, is a doctor, too.  You want to consider everything before you make a decision, don’t you?”

“How could your friend help?  What can he say?”  Another person knowing …  It was bad enough that her Mama knew.  Up there in Heaven, her mamma knew.  Detta cringed at the thought.  I’m sorry, Mamma.  I’m sorry.  “There is no answer to this except …”

“Humor me, Detta?  I’ve known you for most of your growing up years.  I wouldn’t suggest this if I didn’t care about you.  I’ll drive you home now and tomorrow morning you come by about 9.”

“Are you a magician?” she whispered, hopeful.   Into the silence that was his disappointing response she said, “Yes, okay, Dr. Alcott.”

 

9:00 AM   A January Wednesday   1955

“Detta, I would like you to meet the friend I told you about.  This is …  Jacob. Jacob, Detta.”

His hand, half covered in a fingerless glove, was warm when she took it.  At first, she hadn’t believed Dr. Alcott when he explained where he was taking her.  It all seemed beyond possibility. But here it was.  Real.  Or was it the magic she wanted?

“Peter has explained that you need some time to, ah, come to an important decision.  I hope being here will help you do that.  We don’t usually have visitors, you understand.”

“I know that all of this has to be kept secret.  You can trust me.  You have my word.”

“Good.  Good.  Now, would you join me for a cup of tea?  And you, Peter?”

“Thank you, but I’ve a full day today.”  He turned to Detta, “You’ll be fine.  I promise the right answer will come to you … down here.”

“You’ll come back for me at 7:00?  I told my Aunt I was going to a friend’s for the day.”

“I’ll be right here, having that cup of tea I don’t have time for now.”

~

Anna showed Detta to a chamber, a small sleeping area, chatting about, of all things, the weather.  She offered a shawl, apologized for the chill, was certain Detta would soon be accustomed to the temperature.  There was a  pitcher in a chipped bowl on the small table beside the narrow, made-up bed.  A book, and a fat candle in a rusty holder, sat on a second table beside the only chair, a rocker with worn cushions on the back and seat.  The walls, many shades of stone, and the ceiling, mostly shadows, flickered and faded in the candlelight.  For a moment it seemed … creepy … and Detta shivered.  She listened about lunch and about more books in the library.  Anna took her to where she could watch a spectacular waterfall make startling rainbows, explained the way to Jacob’s study should she want company, and, before leaving, she hugged Detta and wished her a pleasant visit.

The day was mostly quiet, though metallic sounds echoed once, somewhere far off beyond the tunnel at her back.  She stayed for a time at the underground falls, thinking of nothing beyond the absurdity of her surroundings, trying hard to think of nothing else, resting from the turmoil of the last few weeks in the cacophony of cascading water.  When she felt herself nodding off, Detta stood and followed Anna’s directions through the wide passage that led to the little room she’d been shown earlier.  With no windows and no wristwatch, it was hard to judge the time.  Not one to succumb to daytime naps and definitely not one courageous or foolhardy enough to go exploring in this underground labyrinth, she decided to pace back and forth between her chamber and the falls.  It was not an exercise for thinking, but rather one intended for the opposite - to keep her mind from travelling beyond each footstep placed in the dust.

Lunch with Jacob was pleasant, if meager, and they spoke of Peter Alcott.  The doctors had been friends for a very long time.  She was grateful for the stories, some so humorous that she laughed.  It felt good to laugh, and it felt wrong. 

~

She slept the afternoon away.  So much for not taking naps, she thought, waking slowly beneath a worn-to-softness quilt.  She felt not much better.   Her problem would not be solved with sleep.

~

“Do you think I could come back for one more day?  I’ve not accomplished much …”

“Anna?”  His gaze had shifted over Detta’s shoulder.

 Detta turned. 

“He was in the trash, Jacob.  In the trash.  Behind St. Vincent’s.  I heard a sound and looked and there he was, freezing.  He’s so weak …”

“Here, give him to me.  Oh … dear God …  Come into my bedchamber,” he said to Anna.

As he hurried away, he remembered her question.  “Detta, of course you must come again tomorrow.  If you will excuse me now … Peter will be here soon, I’m sure.”

~

The next morning Jacob called out to ask permission to enter the chamber Detta was once again given.  He carried the whimpering infant, bundled in quilts.  The doctor seated himself on the edge of the bed, put the child to his shoulder, and rubbed circles on the tiny back. 

“Please, sit, my dear.  Here, take a pillow.  That rocker is more uncomfortable than it looks.  I apologize for not meeting you and Peter earlier.”

“How is the baby today?”

“About the same, I’m afraid.  It’s been a long night.  We don’t know quite what to do for him.”  Jacob rose to pace the small room, patting the tiny body he carried.  “Is there anything you need today?  Did you want to talk to me … about …?  No?  Well, then, in case I don’t see you during the day, please know you are welcome to return.  For now I think I should take this little one for a long walk.  The motion seems to soothe him.  Gretchen will come by later with lunch.”  And he was gone.

 ~

Detta returned Friday and Saturday .  She always found Jacob with the baby.  After asking about his charge and hearing his hopeful prognosis, belied by the worry in his eyes, she’d find her way to the falls.

Rather than thinking about the decision she’d come to make she found herself wondering at the attention and care given the foundling.  Anna hovered, taking the child so Jacob could sleep now and again, or it was Mariah or Old Cosimo taking a turn, or Benjamin and his wife, Michelina.  She lost track of names.  The baby never seemed to stop fussing, and Jacob told Detta he couldn’t rest for long because he knew the baby seemed more … consoled … in his arms.      

Saturday evening, after dinner, Detta sat off to the side as young children were allowed to see the baby.  She was taken by  their absorbed expressions, the studying stares with which some considered him.  A few asked permission to touch a cheek or hold a finger.  Jacob refused with gentle explanations about germs and the baby’s illness.   She wanted to help but felt … dishonest.  Wasn’t she here to decide whether to have her own baby?  Still, she thought she could be trusted to hold and rock the small bundle and finally found the courage to ask the next morning.

“Of course you can,” Jacob said, “And while you do, I’ll just go and check on the diapers. Here, let me introduce you to Vincent, the newest member of our family.  You’ve not met him yet, have you?  Oh, don’t cry, little one…  ”

Detta, intrigued, opened her arms to receive the child, but they fell, wooden, to her sides.  She stepped back, horrified, turned and ran into the tunnel.

 

8:00 PM   A January Wednesday   1955

“No, Len, I won’t tell you where I was.  I told you I had to think. What?  Yes.  I’m going to see Jeff.  Tomorrow night.  No.  I don’t want you to come to the house.  I’ll meet you at the library about 7.  Yeah, I’m fine with it.  I’ve got to go now. Bye.”  She let the phone slip back into its cradle and left the phone booth.

Nightmares are nothing compared to this, she thought.  At least you woke from a scary dream.  Imagine if she’d given birth to a … thing … like that.  There’d never be any awakening from such a horror.  That crazy man.  Did he honestly think she’d hold, rock, that … mutation?  They were all weird down there.  They actually seemed to care if … it … lived.  Even Dr. Alcott wanted to save it.  He’d found her waiting in the tunnel and when she said she wanted to go home he hadn’t asked any questions.

She’d be free of the problem by Saturday and school would start Monday.  It was the right decision.  The only decision.

 

1:00 PM   A January Thursday   1976

“Detta?” 

There was surprise in his voice when he opened the office door, though surely he’d seen her name on his schedule.     

“Hello, Dr. Alcott.”

He stood aside, gestured her in.

She ignored the patient chair and walked to the window to stare out at the brownstones across the way.  “I … never … thanked you.”  She turned to face him.  “For taking me down to the tunnels all those years ago.”

“Now I’m thanked,” he smiled.  “Are you well?”

“Yes.  I have my music and my teaching.”

“And your family.  They’re living in Queens now?”

She came and sat.  “My father retired a couple of years after my uncle did and they all decided to purchase a two family house in Hollis.  They miss the possibilities of Manhattan but they enjoy their garden and the privacy that apartment living can’t provide.  And my dad has windows.” 

“Ah, yes, he told me once about that promise.”

“He never forgot her.  A love for the ages.  I still miss my mother, too.”  She changed the subject.  “Did you know Mariah is an ER  nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital?  And my cousin Wallace teaches philosophy at Columbia.”

“That’s wonderful.  And what about you, Detta?  You were never around when I went to the house, though I always asked about you.  Everyone said you were happy.  When they moved I lost touch.”

“I didn’t want to see you, Doctor.  I couldn’t.  I was so ashamed.  No one ever knew, but you.”

“ And Len.”

“Yes.  And Len.  I called him when I made the … decision.  But I never betrayed the secret.”  She wanted to assure him of that.  “Len was going to come with me.  I’d decided to end the pregnancy but that night it … took care of itself.  You know my mother had had numerous miscarriages between me and the baby she was carrying when … the accident happened?”

“No.  I didn’t.”

“Yes, well, she did and I did, too, that once.”

“Now?”

“Len and I went our separate ways and I’ve never looked for anyone … else.”

“Did you blame him?”

“No.  Well, maybe.  I was so young.  He was as scared as I was.  It’s taken me these 20 or so years to realize that.  I had no choice back then, at least I try to think that now, and neither did he.  And then he had that friend who knew a guy in med school who was … doing it … to help pay for tuition.  Imagine.”  He waited, still and watching, as she continued.  “We were all crazy … kids.  Dreaming big dreams.  Our dreams in those days were even more fragile than now.  I think I’m ready to let it go, except for you and your friend Jacob.  I needed to see you for … closure.  I think that’s what they call it these days.  Is he still down there?”

“Oh, yes.  There’s quite a community, thriving, more than thriving.   It’s a world of safety and acceptance for those who need to leave this one.  Some heal and return.  Some stay.  There are quite a few children rescued from … well, from less than happy lives up here.” 

“Do you think he would agree to see me one more time.  I left … things … unsaid.”

“I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t.  I’ll let you know in a day or two after I’ve spoken to him.  Can I call you?”

“Thank you.  Call me at home,” she took out a pen wrote on a small card, “and my office number is here as well.”  She slipped it across his desk.  “You can leave a message either place.  I spend a great deal of time in the classroom.” 

“My, my.  Detta, I’m pleased for you,” he said as he read.

“I became the teacher I always wanted to be and I get to have lots of children this way.  My mom always wanted a big family, according to my dad who says she’d be happy to see how huge mine is.  I sometimes think he tells me  that to cover his disappointment at not having real grandkids.  But I can’t help that.”  She paused, looked past him for a moment, than continued.  “I do have him in to talk to my classes about music, how it was in Arkansas when all the aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents gathered with their mountain dulcimers, jugs, guitars, fiddles.  Great Uncle Hezekiah could still pick the meanest banjo and he was at least 90.  Grandpa Abe played his stove pipe best in the county. And one of my uncles once did a duo with DeFord Bailey.  He was only a kid then, and it was just once around a campfire, but that made him the most famous relative in the whole clan.  Anyway, my dad enjoys sharing his memories with the kids.”

“Detta, you’re more than a teacher.  You are Miss Bernadette Kendrick, Director of Music Education  for the entire New York City school system.  At least that’s what this card says.” 

“Yes, well, that … but I maintain my own classes at several schools.  I’m pleased to be in a position to guide curriculum and methodology from my Department of Ed office, but what I like best is the classroom.”  She smiled.  “But I’m taking too much of your time, Doctor.”  She stood and held out her hand.  “Thank you for seeing me and if you can manage an appointment with your friend I’d be very grateful.  Oh, one more thing … the baby … Vincent … did he live?”

“Yes, he most certainly did, and quite the extraordinary young man is our Vincent.”

“Then perhaps I might be permitted to say a few words to him, as well?”

“I’ll call you, Detta, as soon as I’ve spoken to Jacob.” He held the door for her.  “I’m very glad you came today.”

“So am I, Doctor.  Thank you for receiving me with such an open heart.  I hoped you would.”

He leaned close and kissed her cheek.  “See you soon, Detta, and we’ll take a walk through a tunnel we both will remember.”

She thanked him again and left feeling better, lighter of soul, than she had in such a long time.

~

That night her phone rang at 8:15.  She was to meet Dr. Alcott in an hour and he’d accompany her to the candlelit world below Manhattan. “One thing,” he’d said to her, his voice slowing, deepening, and she sat up straight to listen, the phone suddenly tight to her ear. “You’ll understand without my explaining, I hope, that we – no one – calls him Jacob any more. He’s known as Father to everyone.  Everyone, Detta.  It’s important there are no … mistakes. He–“

“Has his reasons,” she said. Reasons to leave the world above, reasons to stay below, reasons to fade away and rematerialize, reimagined.  “I gave my word years ago. It’s still good.”

~

“Bernadette, it’s so nice to see you.  It’s a fine surprise, a happy and welcome one.”

She felt the tears burn but held them back.  “You’re very kind … Father.  While I can say it is a pleasure to be here once more, I rather think you must have harsh memories of me.”

“Not at all, my dear, not at all.  Ah, Mary, this is Bernadette, a friend whom I’ve not seen in over 20 years.  Bernadette, this is Mary, our nurse and my very dear friend.”

The women smiled and nodded to one another.  “Shall I read to the children tonight, Father, so you two can catch up?”

“Thank you, Mary, but after the day you’ve had … perhaps Vincent would take my place?  I know he’ll find a rapt audience.”

“Indeed.  And he’ll be thrilled to do it.  Good then.  I wish you both a lovely visit and I hope to see you again, Bernadette.”

“Thank you, Mary.  Good night.”

“Yes, do get some rest, Mary.”

She turned on the stair, smiled at him and continued into the tunnel.

“Mary mothers all of our children and two have chicken pox.  She barely gets any sleep at all, even on a good night.  Come, sit and have some tea with me.  Tell me how you’ve been all these, too-many-years since I saw you last.”

“I’ve asked to see you because I wanted to explain, and apologize, for running away that last night, and for not thanking you for the days of hospitality you provided.”

“My dear, as I recall, there wasn’t much hospitality what with Vincent just arriving, sick as he was and needing our time and attention.”

“Everyone was kind and I was rude and ungrateful.”  She paused for the metallic tapping that sounded along one wall.

“It’s how we communicate,” he explained.

“Oh, I’m not sure I remember it from … the last time.”

“We’ve come quite a long way since then.”

“So I see.   And I like to think I have, as well, come a long way … back to a very important place, a never to be forgotten time, actually.  It was right here … that I made a decision … not one of which I am proud, I confess, yet those days, relived over the years, have also been my salvation, my healing. I was mature enough at nineteen that I did admire your, everyone’s, dedication to Vincent, but I could not move beyond wonder and a measured respect.  I didn’t understand that although no one had planned to take on responsibility for an orphan infant, no one resented him or saw him as a life-long burden.  He was not a new duty.  I didn’t recognize that.  Day after day, and night after night, I thought I knew how it must be and I judged your life disrupted, ruled by the needs of this … very unusual … baby.  I should have known that love admits hardship, makes of it an honor, a privilege .  I come from a loving family that made sacrifices to get me where I wanted to go.  But I think I never saw love, as it manifested itself here, where it brushed the edges of my heart, not blinding me, but nudging me where I should have gone.  I’d be reminded of it on occasion, in the eyes of my students, the kindness of a co-worker, a stranger, and I’d look back and experience it again as it had been in the candlelight.  Perhaps I needed the perspective of … some maturity.”  She stopped and took a deep breath.  “I wasn’t exactly ungrateful, I suppose, as much as oblivious.  I hope you can forgive me.”

“I forbid you to speak apologies, my dear.  What brought you to us was your concern.  Peter has never betrayed your confidence.  I regret the pain of a decision that caused you grief and any part I may have taken in it, but I am relieved to know that passing time and memories of us have helped you to deal with it.  I ought to have prepared you for Vincent but it was all so ... hectic … those first few weeks, trying to save him.  However, I am not excusing myself.  You can see I was at fault.  Shall we exchange pardons and be done with that?”  She grinned and he continued, “Now, please tell me of your life since we last parted.”

He paid close attention and she told him more than she’d intended. Soon enough the name Father fell easily from her lips. It was right and true.

“So you’ve become a master musician, teacher, and, like Mary and your good mother, you love  all the children in your life.  I’d say you’ve much to be proud of, Bernadette.   It is alright that I call you Bernadette?  We don’t hold much with nicknames down here, a quirk of mine that I’ve inflicted on the rest, I fear, and I know I should be ashamed …”

Mary found them laughing. “Father, Bernadette, forgive me for interrupting again but I think Manuel’s fever has worsened.”

“I’ll come at once, Mary.  Bernadette, I think Vincent might be done by now. Come along and we’ll show you the way to the children’s dormitory.”

 “Will he mind?”

“Seeing you there?  Not at all.  I’ve told him you were expected this evening and he does want to meet you.  And you must not refrain from saying, ‘My, how you’ve grown’.  You may very well be the only person who can say that to him.”

~

A riot of children’s giggles drew Detta as she rounded the turn in the tunnel that Father and Mary had indicated.  She peeked into a large chamber and saw that the hilarity was punctuated, enacted, by small bodies rolling about on beds that lined the walls, as well as on thick comforters spread on the rough floor.  The audience was more than enjoying their story time.

“I know a shy fellow who swallowed a cello.  I don’t know why he swallowed a cello …”  The soft voice came from a feline-featured, golden-haired young man with laughing blue eyes, miming a bow sawing across his midsection, while his other, heavily-haired hand fingered  imaginary strings at his long throat.  His unique appearance did not fade into the comedic act but, rather like an attractive and ad-worthy face, simply was, and in being, enhanced the performance.

“I know a shy fellow who swallowed a harp.  Not very sharp to swallow a harp.” 1 Now he held himself straight, long legs stiff in corduroy jeans, a grey knit shirt tucked in at a narrow waist.  He gazed, with solemn, angelic concentration at the high stone ceiling and plucked invisible strings on the ‘swallowed’ harp.  Plink.  Plunk.  Plonk.  The children shrieked and roared even louder than before.  Vincent ‘ingested’ other instruments and played them all, much to the unrestrained amusement of his listeners.  There’d be no gentle drifting off to sleep this night, the teacher in her was sure, but she watched and laughed in her shadowy recess until he’d finished reading the book.  To her surprise, he settled the group with unexpected ease.  Each  youngster was tucked in, there were whispers of ‘Good night, Isaac’ and ‘Sweet dreams, Alicia’, ‘Tomorrow will come, Serena’ until he arrived before her and they stepped into the tunnel.

“I’m Vincent and I know you’re Miss Kendrick.  Father told me you’d be coming tonight. Welcome back to our home.”

“Father told me I’m to say, ‘My, how you’re grown’.  Should I?”

“As one of few, no, as the only one, perhaps, who’s seen me as a baby and not since, I guess you should.” He had a sort of half smile but his eyes were cautious.

“You’re so good with the children, Vincent.  I hope you didn’t mind my eavesdropping.  I confess to having indulged that bad habit since childhood.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed some of our story hour.”  She sensed he was relaxing.  “And better for me that it was you rather than Mary or Father.  Neither would have appreciated my antics at bedtime.  Would you like to return to Father’s study?”.

“Will they,” she nodded toward the dormitory, “be alright? ”

“Alison will be here in a moment.  She’ll stay the night and restore any order as might become  necessary.  Here she is now.”

He made introductions, and Alison, a slender young girl of about twenty-five, soon smiled Detta  and Vincent on their way.

“Mary called Father to look in on Manuel.  I wonder, would you mind if we went to the falls?”

“Of course.  It’s just this way …”

“I wonder one more thing, Vincent, would you allow me to …” and, without permission, she slipped her arm around his.  “I’ve come tonight to apologize to Father and to you.” 

“Why would you feel a need to apologize to me?”  He’d stiffened.

“I was once offered the chance to hold you and I … ran away.  I thought I’d fix that.  I was afraid to touch you that night.  An unconscionable reaction to a tiny babe.  That fear was the impetus I needed, no, used, to make a very unfortunate decision.  I’ve found some peace since, recalling aspects of my visit so many years ago, things I didn’t appreciate then but can, now.  Thanks to your kindness and that of your father and Dr. Alcott, I will leave here tonight as healed as I can hope to be.”

She could say no more and Vincent did not press her for an explanation.  They continued to the falls, comfortable, arm-in-arm. 

“I loved this place.  So loud and yet so quiet. Rather like my heart in those terrible days. Thank you, Vincent, for bringing me here.”

“Will you be staying with us, Miss Kendrick?”

“You must call me Bernadette, Vincent.” She turned from the falling water to look at him.  “I won’t be staying, though I would so delight in getting to know you and Mary and the others.  How is Anna?”

“Anna?” Vincent’s brow furrowed, furrowed deeper. A chill wind rushed the ledge where they stood.

“Perhaps I have the name wrong – it’s been so very long and I was here so short a time.” Again, reasons. She hadn’t forgotten the name of the woman who’d been kind to her; she’d not forgotten one second of her time below.  She didn’t understand, but maybe she didn’t need to. Maybe it didn’t matter. Maybe it could wait.

 “It’s cold all of a sudden, isn’t it? Would you like to return to Father’s chamber?”

“Yes.  I guess we should. Unless you’ve swallowed a spare shawl?”

“That’s a different book,” he deadpanned, and they turned, laughing, into the tunnel. 

“I imagine the children enjoy all the storytellers.”

“Father is the hands-down-favorite.  He never brings a book to story hour.  Imagine!  And his magical tales delight and educate.  He is so … respectful … of the children.  I’ve lately thought of getting them to call him Grandfather.”  He showed a small teasing smile.  “But that might make him feel old.  I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt him.”  He grew serious.  “Father is the guiding spirit of this world, its creator.  To me he embodies the deepest, truest meaning of what a Father is.  He’s raised me as his own, taught me so many things, everything I know.  Well, almost everything.”  He smiled again.  “He loves me with a fierce intensity.  I know something of my finding and of being carried to him.  He accepted me.  He didn’t just ‘take me in’.  He opened his arms and received me into his heart.  He saved my life and has made of it a joy. Being … as I am … I might have ended … badly.  He’s the finest man I know.”

How discerning this young man was. “You are extraordinary, as Peter said.”

“No.  I’m just … different.”  He’d lowered his gaze.

“Each of us is.  Musician that I am, I like to think of us as unique and necessary notes in the grand composition that is life’s symphony.”

“Is every note … beautiful?”

“It …”  she paused.  “Vincent, that book you were reading  …?”

“Yes?”

“I’m guessing there are no  instruments for the children - no piano, no flutes or violins, no guitars.  Not a swallowed harp to be found?”  She grinned.

“No cello, either,” he joked, “but we do have two jugs, some small bells that I attached to an old embroidery hoop for a tambourine, pots and lids, of course, and spoons.” He hesitated.  “I guess that’s about it.  Oh, a school bell,” he remembered.

“Do you think some of the children would like to learn a real instrument?”

She saw a new light in his eyes and heard the excitement when he spoke.  “I’m sure of it .  Are you thinking of giving lessons, Miss Kendrick? I mean Bernadette,” he amended when she scowled at him.

“I am.  I know I can find what we need, just to begin, at any rate, in the storage rooms at some of our schools.  I can ethically say those instruments belong in the hands of the children of New York City and I can see that they are placed in those hands ... here.  Shall we go and see what  your father thinks of our idea?”

 

Dedicated to Janet MacLachlan (1933 - 2010)
whose Miss Kendrick will ever remain a beloved Helper.

_______________

1. I Know a Shy Fellow Who Swallowed a Flute by Barbara S. Garriel, Illustrations by John O’Brien

 

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