A Time to Forget
By Fay Tarlock
Synopsis: Serena Abbe, who had lost her fiance in the war, goes to live on a walnut farm which she inherited from her cousin Harriet Lester. There she meets Jeff Landeau, a widower who owns the adjoining acres, and who helps her in running her farm. Luis Trejeda, a Mexican, also assists in the work, and Serena is impressed by his wholesome and buoyant attitude towards life. Serena also makes friends with young David, Jeff’s son, and, after the first harvest, she feels at home in the San Vincente Valley. Soon after Christmas Serena and Jeff are married, but, upon their return from a honeymoon in Mexico, they find that Delia, who is a cousin to Jeff’s first wife, has persuaded David to stay with her instead of going to live with Jeff and Serena. Serena tries to persuade David to change his mid and go home with them.
“This is the room my mother made for me. I have to stay in it, just like it is.” His voice had a sad finality.
Serena could see only the outlines of the furniture, yet she could see it as clearly as if it had been illuminated by a rocket. There were the nursery pictures on the pastel walls, Jack and Jill and the three pigs. The low cream-colored chest and bed were gay with nursery decals. And the white organdy curtains were ruffled in baby blue.
“It’s a beautiful room, David. I know how happy your mother was when she made it for you. But do you know how old you were when she finished it?”
“No, I don’t.” He said it as if it were an entirely new idea.
“You were a tiny baby, just three months old when she was able to put up the blue ruffled curtains. She had waited to see if you would be a boy or a girl.”
She gave his hand a little squeeze. “I think if she were alive now, she would change this room to fit a big boy, don’t you?”
“I guess she would at that.” He let out a long sigh of relief.
“What kind of a room would you like, David, if you could plan your own room?”
The dark waters were receding now and the ground under Serena’s struggling feet would soon be solid.
“If I could plan my own room?” He toyed with the idea, pleased. “Well, the first thing I’d like would be a bunk bed, two bunk beds, so I could have friends stay with me overnight.”
“Go on, David, go on.”
“And I’d like a little desk, where I could write and put my things.” He was excited now. “I’d like a secret drawer, one with a key. And I’d like a big closet with a sliding door, big enough to put everything away.”
“I think I know what you mean, David.” She let the excitement in her voice match his. “You’d like a big room with lots of built-in furniture.” She sat upright beside him. “That’s just the kind of room we want in the new wing. You can help me plan it.”
“Oh, boy!” he cried happily, then he became strangely silent. “What is it, David?” Her voice was gentle.
“Delia said,” he began, shame in his voice, then hesitation, “she said you didn’t want me to have a room near you – that was why you were building the new place.”
“What a funny Delia!” she laughed as if it were a good joke. “Delia just doesn’t understand families, does she? We want you to have a room that is fitted for you, and it’s much easier to start from new than to change an old one.” Reaching, she took David’s hand and pressed it between hers. So much depended on how she made the next step.
“Of course, until the room is built, you’ll have to get along with the room across the hall from ours. It will look more like you when we move your things. You won’t mind waiting in it for a few months, will you?”
“Oh, sure not.” He was positive.
“And there’s another reason why your room should be in the new wing with the guest room and a room for Luis. Do you think you could keep it to yourself if I told you the reason?” She waited for his quick nod. “Your father and I want you to have brothers and sisters. You’d like brothers and sisters, wouldn’t you?”
“Would I? Oh, boy!” He was exultant. “I’ve always wanted a brother or a sister.”
“That’s why we must save a room next to ours; a baby has to be close, you know.”
With a contented sigh, David lay back on the pillow.
Just one more step and the ground might be forever firm. “Did Delia say anything else I ought to know?” She asked the question with finality.
“Not much, I guess.” He was concentrating in the dark. After a few uneasy wriggles, he sat up. “I’m sorry now, but when Dad came to get me today, and you weren’t with him, I thought that everything Delia had said was true. I decided not to like you any more.”
“Oh, David!” She kissed him on the cheek, her tears mingling with his. “I was so foolish. I thought you’d want to see your father alone – I made him go without me. After this we’ll always listen to what he says, won’t we? Now, is there anything else?” She stood up, ready to turn on the light.
David made his final confession. “You only wrote to me two or three times, and I wanted you to write to me every day like Dad did.”
Serena laughed contritely. “I’ll have to tell you my secret. I wanted to write every day. Sometimes it was hard to keep from writing, and I made your father sit down and write for me. The things I wanted to tell you, I thought you would rather hear from him.”
“I liked your letters best.”
Serena hugged David impulsively. “In every town we went I bought you something. I wanted you there to enjoy it with us.”
“Someday we’ll go together.” He spoke as a man of decision.
“That’s a promise. Are you ready to come home now?”
He slipped out of bed. “If you’ll turn on the light by the door, I’ll get dressed.”
“I’m going to bathe our eyes,” she said after she had pressed the light button. “We don’t want them to know we’ve been crying.” At the bathroom door she hesitated. “These things you’ve told me … about Delia – we’re going to forget them, aren’t we? I’m sure she didn’t want to make us unhappy. She was just lonely.”
“I’ll be glad to forget them.” He grinned at her. “You won’t tell Dad all the things I’ve said? He’ll think I should know better and be angry with me.”
“Most of it is our secret.” She wiped her eyes with a wet cloth. “I’ll have to tell him just enough for him to understand what happened tonight. Don’t dress,” she stopped him. “Put on your slippers and robe. I’ll bring your school clothes for tomorrow.”
Waiting at the foot of the stairs was Jeff. His look said they had been a long time, but he would be patient for a while longer. Behind him in the living room Delia was still bent over her knitting, a look of strain on her face. When she saw David in his blue and white striped robe, holding his shoes, the strain turned to a look of relief.
David hesitated before Delia. He looked at her, his blue eyes deep and incalculable. “I’ll be seeing you every day,” he said, “… that is every day I possibly can.” He added this with a child’s regard for utter truth. He turned to his father with a smile so winsome that Jeff swept him up into his arms.
At the door, Serena, in the rear, turned to Delia. “Come over the first thing in the morning, won’t you? I’m unpacking then and I’m longing to show you our things.”
Delia came to the door. “You’re a good woman, Serena Landeau,” she said in her thin, dry voice.
To Serena’s amazement Delia leaned forward and gave her a cool little peck on the cheek.
Serena’s heart turned over. Why, it was an apology, signed, sealed, and delivered.
On the big mahogany bed in the former guest room, David’s charro suit was spread in all its gaudy splendor. The soft suede trousers and short jacket were fancy with braid and silver coins. There were small silver spurs. Silver jingled as Serena lifted up the boy-sized sombrero. Fancy stitched boots and a red ribbon for a tie made the costume complete.
David’s eyes were wild with delight. “It’s all mine?” he asked, his excitement mounting. “What an outfit!” stroked the soft suede with an appreciative hand.
Towering over him, Jeff laughed. He pulled Serena toward him, ready to leave, but she lingered.
“See,” she said, and held up a small white fluff of a dog. “I found him under your bed at Delia’s house. Do you want him?”
Pure joy shone in David’s eyes. “It’s Cream Puff.” Clutching the small toy, he lay back, tired and contented. “Good night,” he said softly. He pulled Serena’s head down close to his. His face, pressed against hers, had the velvety softness of childhood. “Good night, Mother,” he whispered.
Serena felt bathed in happiness. All at once she was tired and relaxed and she let herself go in a luxurious yawn. “Good night, Son,” she whispered, and turned off the light.
The day of the San Vincente Circle in early April Delia was low with a cold. “I wanted to be the first to introduce you to our Circle.” Her voice over the telephone was a disappointed croak. “Now you’ll have to go with Myra Hale.”
“I’ll wait until next month. It doesn’t matter about today,” Serena consoled her.
“Indeed it does matter!” Delia’s indignation was loud. “All the ladies are anxious to see you. And you simply can’t disappoint Constance and Martha Bates.”
Serena’s laughter was bright as the morning. “If it’s that important I’ll be there,” she promised.
“I hate to go,” she confessed to Jeff, who still lingered at the table though David had been gone half an hour and the workmen’s hammers were competing with the birds. “they will be so curious.”
Jeff pushed back a brown curl on her forehead. “They,” he teased, “are only a group of farmers’ wives, all envious of you because you are a bride and young and beautiful.”
A wrinkle came between her eyes. “Don’t laugh, but it’s the oldtimers, the forty-niners’ progeny who have lived in the same houses all their lives – they may not approve of me.”
Jeff’s fine blue eyes twinkled. “I see no concern there. With few exceptions, the group is quite mature. I think you can hold your own with them.”
“I want advice, not nonsense.” Her fingers curled over his hand. “You know some of them are going to resent me.”
“Be yourself.” He pressed his cheek against hers in a farewell gesture. At the kitchen door. He hesitated. “You have to meet them sometime. Do it on the wholesale, and it will be over.” He came back into the room. “The Bates sisters are grand old girls, pushing ninety. Except for a married niece, they’re the last of their direct line. When they open their house to the Circle, which their Boston mother founded, it’s a great event.
“You’ll hear them called Miss Constance and Miss Martha, but remember that Miss Constance is Mrs. Chadwick. She was married for a few weeks some seventy years ago – her husband was killed in some accident right after they were married, and she’s been lording it over Miss Martha ever since.”
“What should I know about Miss Martha?” Serena asked.
“Miss Martha is younger, by a year. She taught the village school for three decades and is the strong pillar of the family despite her interior state.” He rose, putting on his broad-brimmed felt hat. “They’re the first ladies of Meadtown, and you will be right at home with them.”
At the door he hesitated again, his face newly serious. “I guess I’d better brief you on Alice McKellar. She’s sure to be there. I should have taken you calling.” His voice was contrite. “She was a great friend of the Henleys. I want you to be especially nice to her. She didn’t come to the wedding, I don’t know why. She’s a bit on the erratic side, but she’s been a good friend to me and she’s one of the old-timers here, along with the Bates family. Bye now.” He closed the door. It was barely shut before he opened it again.
“I’m as hard to get rid of as an unwelcome guest, but there’s just one more thing on my mind. It’s not for today, just sometime when you feel the time is ripe. Find out what blows with David and the boy scouts?”
“He’s not eligible until next fall, is he?” Serena asked. It wasn’t like Jeff to worry about a thing so far into the future.
“He gets out of the cubs this spring, and I want him to start scouting this fall. Yesterday I heard him and Johnny Talbot talking in the barn. Something’s up. They said they weren’t going into the scouts.
This time the door stayed closed.
A ripple of elation went through Serena. Jeff trusted her in relation to David. In the short years before Jim’s death she had expected much of life and received all she asked and more. Then came the dark years when she began to wonder if she even cared to ask for bounties. Now life was showering her with gifts as if to atone for the shadowed period. Singing, she went about her housework. Fall was a long time off; she would have plenty of time to talk with David. Too bad Luis couldn’t help her today, but he was washing Delia’s neglected dishes and getting her garden ready for planting.
Today she must be smartly but quietly dressed. Carefully, she chose a soft gray woolen dress with a swirling skirt of tiny pleats. She wore with it a silver-studded belt and her silver accessories and a vivid orange scarf that brought out the warmth of her hair and eyes. In spite of the bright sun, a cold wind was blowing, and she threw her gray Persian lamb jacket over her shoulders. It was given her by her father her last year in college. Just before the wedding it had been restyled.
When she arrived at the Hale home, her friend looked at her approvingly. “You look like a bride ought to look,” Mrs. Hale said. “The rest of us will look mighty plain and old.”
“Suppose they turn thumbs down on me?” She was in Mrs. Hale’s car now, her skirt carefully arranged.
Puffing, Mrs. Hale slid her weight into the driver’s seat. “That could never happen,” she said, her mouth firm. “Everyone I’ve seen has urged either Delia or me to bring you. You belong with us, and we’re flattered you’re coming. We’re not as young as we used to be.”
“No one is,” Serena reassured her, smiling.
The valley was a sweet place. Mustard blooms still carpeted the valley floor. Here and there orchards were white and heady with fragile flowers. For accent, gardens flaunted the flame color of the flowering quince and ornamental peach.
From the main highway, Mrs. Hale drove through a new subdivision with ranch-type homes set deep in the walnut trees. She gave a reminiscent sigh.
“When we first came all this side of the valley was in walnuts, right up to the Bates’ garden. Then Henry, that was the girls’ only brother, began selling bits of it for small farms. Now look at it. Half-acre lots, and some of them go almost to Main Street.” She shook her head sadly. “They’ll be doing that to our places soon.”
“Oh, I hope not!” Serena spoke with fervor. Just when she was learning to love this place and feel a part of it, it might be taken from her.
She turned her shining eyes to Mrs. Hale. “I hope it doesn’t come for a long time yet, not until our new wing has grown old.”
Mrs. Hale’s plump cheeks shook with understanding laughter. “Today,” she chuckled, “you’re going to see a place where life has been going on pretty much the same way for a hundred years. You’ll have to look at the refrigerator and radio to see there’s been any change at all. Everything else in the house either came by boat around the Horn or in the early freight cars. Except for a married niece, Mrs. Constance and Miss Martha are the last of their direct line and they’ve got everything the family ever had. See, there it is,” she nudged Serena enthusiastically, pointing to a great three-storied white clapboard house ahead of them on the slope.
“It was built before the groves were planted, when all this country was grazing and wheat land. And the right wing,” she waved a plump hand, “the lumber for it came around the Horn. The Bates wouldn’t tear it down when they built this place.”
“Looks like everyone is here,” she said, maneuvering her car along the circle of parked automobiles. “They’re curious as a cat to see you.” She propelled Serena up the broad gray steps and rang the bell.