Callie woke up slowly the next morning. She really didn’t want to wake up at all. Needs must, she sighed, and forced herself to get up.
After a shower and a cup of coffee she brewed in her room, she got dressed in the plain black dress she’d brought for the funeral. She took out the soft gray cashmere shawl to put on later. The weather promised to be overcast and cool, with only a slight chance of rain in the morning. She might need the shawl later on.
She slipped on black pumps and transferred essentials from her tote bag to the small black purse that went with her dress. Great, she sighed. It’s barely eight o’clock and the funeral service isn’t until ten.
She pulled out her smartphone and checked job listings. That succeeded in killing time but not in turning up any leads. Maybe she could sign up with a temp agency or something while she waited for something more in her line to come along.
At last it was time to go. She drove over to the church and found Phoebe waiting for her in the foyer. Phoebe’s eyes were red and her mood was somber. “How are you doing?” Phoebe asked quietly.
“I’m okay. How about you?”
“Oh, hanging in there.” Phoebe shook her head. “Just hard to believe.”
Callie touched her aunt’s arm. “I know. But we’ll make it through this.”
“Not much choice,” Phoebe nodded, with a wry smile.
“You’re leaving in the morning?”
“Yes, early. I have to drive to Kansas City to catch my flight. You’re leaving tomorrow too?”
Callie shook her head. “I’m going to stay a few more days. I need to close up the house, take care of Mom’s things.”
“I wish I had been able to help you with that,” Phoebe sighed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Callie said quickly. “It’s hard for me too. I was thinking about just hiring someone to box everything up and put it in storage. Then we can both deal with it later.”
Phoebe nodded. “That’s a good idea. I can pay for the storage.”
“Well, maybe. We’ll see how much it would cost.”
“I’m glad your employer is being so good about giving you more time off,” Phoebe remarked after a moment.
“Yes, well, I didn’t give him much choice,” Callie said with a shrug. She still hadn’t told her aunt that she’d quit her job. There just wasn’t a good time, and there certainly wouldn’t be a good moment today.
The pastor came over with his wife, a tall generously proportioned woman with fluffy blonde hair. “People are beginning to arrive,” he told them. “Would you rather be seated in the sanctuary now?”
“Callie?” her aunt asked.
“Yes, I think that would be good,” Callie said in as firm a tone as she could manage.
Ginny Austin gestured to the open doors to the name. “I’ll show you to your pew, just come with me.”
They followed her to the first pew and sat at the far end, away from the casket balanced on its bier. The rose-gold casket was closed, on the recommendation of the funeral home. The accident hadn’t left them much to work with.
Callie’s chest tightened. It was all becoming too real. She’d been able to hold off the truth for days, keeping busy, keeping distracted – but here she was, sitting only a few feet from the dead body of her mother, and it was difficult keeping that wall erected. She glanced at Phoebe, whose face was a mask of grief. Callie took her aunt’s hand and squeezed it; Phoebe nodded with a wavering smile.
Then she caught the motion of someone just at the edge of her vision. It was Cara McDonald. “Is it all right if we sit with you?” Callie looked beyond Cara, and there was the whole McDonald clan. She nodded, unable to speak, and Cara sat beside her, putting an arm around her shoulder without saying another word. Anne McDonald sat down by Phoebe, with Tom on her other side, and Will and Hank sat down by Cara.
Callie leaned against Cara, trying to keep her tears from falling. She felt so – protected, as if she weren’t really alone anymore. She remembered what Cara had said yesterday, “We will be there for you,” and one tear escaped, trailing down her cheek. Cara tightened her arm around Callie’s shoulder.
The pastor’s eulogy was comforting, and she liked the hymns they sang. The pastor said they were her mother’s favorites. By the time the pastor asked if anyone wanted to come forward to say anything, Callie was in control again.
Phoebe got up first. “I had the best sister I could ask for. Lizzie always looked out after me. She cried with me when my heart was broken, she cheered me when I had success, she laughed with me when we were having fun.” Phoebe paused and swallowed. “I want to be sure to thank you, all of you, for all your help this week. Everyone has been so kind, so helpful. It’s easy to understand why Lizzie loved it so much here. I –“ Phoebe brushed a hand roughly across her eyes. “You all know how good she was. I know we will all miss her so much.” She went back to her seat, where Anne gave her a long hug.
Callie was supposed to be next, and she willed herself to stand up and walk to the microphone. “Lizzie Robinson was my mom.” Her gaze roamed over the people who filled every pew and settled at last on Hank, who looked at her steadily, his serious expression encouraging her to go on. “She did all the typical mom things,” she told Hank, who nodded with a slight smile. “She fed me, clothed me, spanked me when I was bad, which unfortunately happened pretty often,” she added with a half-smile.
“But she did so much more than that. She loved me, unconditionally. She taught me what was right and wrong. She taught me what mattered. She was my mom in every sense of the word.”
Callie took a deep breath, knowing what she wanted to say next, and her gaze left Hank to find the faces of people she had met this week. “This week, as I’ve talked with my mom’s friends in Ware, I started to know someone else, someone who was not just Mom, but a whole separate person. I’ve been seeing her through your eyes and I understand that losing her has been just as hard for you as it has been for me and my aunt.” She looked at Anne McDonald, who was dabbing her eyes with a crumpled tissue; the tight expression on Daniel Alverson’s face; the distress in Ginny Austin’s eyes. “I am so sorry for your loss too." Her gaze returned to Hank. “As hard as it is to know she’s gone now…I see her living on in what she has given us, each one of us, in her own way. As a sister –“ she glanced at Phoebe, who smiled – “as a daughter, as a friend, as a neighbor, as a member of this church, and as a part of this town. In that sense, we will have her with us forever.”
She walked back to her seat, noticing Hank stand up as she passed, and sat down beside Cara. Oddly enough, Hank sat back down then – she thought he was getting up to speak about her mother. Before she had a chance to figure that out, someone else had come toward the microphone.
“I’m Melissa Dancer,” the small black-haired woman said, “and Lizzie organized the book club in my bookstore. Well, she organized me, if you want to know the truth, and I’m sure that comes as no surprise to any of you who knew Lizzie. She had a way of getting us straightened out, headed in the right direction.” Melissa turned her attention to Phoebe and Callie. “She made a difference in our lives. She made our lives better. And while I miss her every hour, I thank God I was able to have the time I did with her.”
That opened the way for a long list of testimonies on what Lizzie Robinson had done for people in Ware. Some she had already heard, other stories were new to her. But there was no doubt Lizzie Robinson had definitely made a difference in all these people’s lives. Callie was once more outside herself, looking at Elizabeth Robinson the person, not just Callie’s mom.
Then there was the trip to the cemetery. Tom and Anne took Phoebe in their car, and Will and Cara took Callie in Will’s truck. Hank rode with Will and Cara, and he helped Callie in and out of the rear seat of the truck. She thought that was strange until she saw Will do the same with Cara up front. Must be a McDonald thing, she shrugged.
She sat again between Phoebe and Cara at the gravesite. She clung to their hands as the casket was lowered. But soon that part was over and it was back to the church for lunch and visiting.
Callie lost track of all the people who stopped by to give their sympathies to her and Aunt Phoebe. Her mom had touched so many lives, and they all seemed grateful for it. The pastor and his wife Ginny sat with them for a while, telling her about what an active part Mom had taken in the church. After several minutes, he smiled and stood up. “Let me know if there’s anything we can do.”
Ginny, who had been talking with Phoebe, nodded and chimed in, “Yes, anything, just give us a call.”
More people stopped by their table. It was odd, but every time she looked up, she saw Hank nearby. Sometimes he noticed her looking at him and sent her an encouraging smile. She knew it was silly, but somehow that gave her a little boost, a little surge of strength to get through the next story and the next condolence.
Finally the afternoon wound down. The ladies from the church finished cleaning up and most people had left. The McDonalds came over and Cara announced, “We’re going out to the farmhouse. Do you want to ride with us or follow us out there?”
Phoebe said quickly, “Oh, we couldn’t impose –“
“Nonsense,” Anne cut her off. “We want you to.”
“I have fresh apple pie," Cara put in. “You’ll stay for dinner and then we’ll just take it easy.”
Callie and Phoebe exchanged glances, and then Phoebe chuckled. “You had me at pie. We’d love to.”
Callie and Phoebe had their cars at the church, so they followed the McDonalds out to the farmhouse. Rain had started falling again, so they rushed into the warm house, drying off with some dishtowels that Cara provided. In moments they were settled in the cozy family room in the front of the house and Anne and Cara were serving coffee and tea.
Anne had settled by her old friend Phoebe and they were talking about Phoebe’s life in Chicago. Callie listened in; some of that she already knew, but some things she hadn’t heard before. Remembering what Mina said, Callie looked at Phoebe not as her aunt but as a person with her own life. And Callie was impressed at all the things Phoebe had accomplished after leaving Ware. She was now a fiscal officer at a government agency in Chicago, but she had a whole trail of achievements leading up to that. Outside of work, Phoebe had done a lot of volunteer work for the symphony and children’s charities, and she participated in 5k and 10k runs in warmer weather.
Before she knew it, Cara was announcing dinner was ready. Tom, Will and Hank came in from outside, bearing platters of steaks and roasted vegetables. “It’s never too early in the year to grill,” Tom declared.
Hank nodded, setting his platter down on the kitchen table. “He’s serious. Remember the Superbowl party we had? Dad was out grilling in a snowstorm!”
“Oh it wasn’t that bad,” Tom retorted. “And I recall a certain young man helping me!”
“And freezing my –“ Hank shot a look at his grandmother – “you know what off in the process.”
Cara sniffed but let him off the hook. Phoebe jumped in and said, “Well, it smells heavenly! I can’t wait to have some.”
They settled down to the table, letting the last few days fade away and simply enjoying each other’s company. Everyone oohed and aahed when Cara brought out her apple pie with homemade ice cream on the side. Then silence fell as they did justice to the dessert.
They took fresh hot coffee back to the living room. Phoebe collapsed on the sofa and declared she didn’t think she would ever move again. “Well, stay here,” Cara suggested. “We’ve got a spare room you can use.”
“Oh no,” Phoebe shook her head. “I have to be up before dawn to get to Kansas City to catch my flight. Tempting as that offer is, I still have to go back to the house and pack.”
“What about you?” Anne asked of Callie. “Are you leaving tomorrow too?”
“No, I’m going to stay a few days longer to close up the house and take care of some other loose ends.” Callie suddenly grinned. “You didn’t know? I thought in a small town everyone knows everything!”
“Well, maybe not everything,” Anne smiled.
“But they’ll know about this by 9 tomorrow morning,” Tom teased his wife. She slapped his arm in retaliation.
“And on that note,” Phoebe announced, rising from the sofa, “I’d best get up while I still can. Thank you so much for everything, all of you, we couldn’t have gotten through this without you. When you all came and sat with us at the church,“ Phoebe hesitated, her eyes filling with tears, and Anne gave her a fierce hug. “Well, anyway,” Phoebe sniffed, a little embarrassed, “thanks, it meant the world to us.”
“I’ll go out with you,” Callie said, getting up herself. “I won’t have a chance to say goodbye to you in the morning.”
Amidst a flurry of hugs and farewells, Callie and Phoebe found themselves out by their cars in the cool evening air. The rain had stopped and a fresh breeze came in gently from the west. Callie lingered by her aunt’s car, suddenly reluctant to say goodbye. Phoebe asked, “Are you going to be okay?”
“Oh sure,” Callie answered quickly. “I have a ton of things to do and then I have to get back to Charleston.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re staying a few more days,” Phoebe smiled. “I imagine it’ll be crazy when you get back to South Carolina. Oh! That reminds me,” she added, “Hank’s been doing repairs on the house so I gave him a key. I told him when he finished to give the key with Daniel Alverson and Daniel would take care of the bill.”
“We can just leave it that way,” Callie replied casually, inwardly cringing at having to pay a repair bill on the house. Her budget would never stand it.
“I need my key to get back into the house tonight, but Daniel has an extra key if you need it.”
Callie shook her head. “Don’t worry, I’ll go see Daniel. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done, Aunt Phoebe.”
“Oh, we helped each other,” Phoebe smiled. “I’ll keep in touch and let you know about anything that’s going on with the estate. You’re really going to be okay? I can stay another day or two –“
“No, no, I’ll be fine!” Callie laughed. “Don’t worry about me. But let’s not let so much time go by before we get together again, okay?”
“You got it,” Phoebe promised with a warm smile. “Maybe this winter I can come down to Charleston for a break from the cold weather.”
“Great idea!” Callie gave her another hug. “Safe travels, okay?”
“You too, kiddo,” Phoebe said, hugging her back. “All right, I better get going. Goodbye, Callie!”
“Bye, Aunt Phoebe!” she answered. She had turned to walk back to her own car when Cara came flying down the steps, carrying a box in her hands.
“Wait a minute, Callie!” Cara called out and hurried over to Callie. “Here, take these, for tomorrow morning.”
Callie looked down at the white pasteboard box in confusion. “What?”
“They’re cinnamon rolls,” Cara explained. “For tomorrow morning.”
“Well, you said you’d be busy,” Cara shrugged. “I want to make sure you have plenty to eat.”
Callie laughed. “Oh, believe me, eating is not a problem for anyone who knows you!”
Cara was unperturbed. “Remember what I told you.”
She sobered. “I do. Thanks, Cara.”
“All right then. Be careful going back to the inn.”
“I will,” Callie smiled warmly. She got into her car, putting the box on the passenger-side seat, and waved to Cara.
As she pulled out, her thoughts moved automatically to her to-do list. She had to do some serious thinking about staying on at the inn. Now that Phoebe was going back to Chicago, she could stay at the house. And she wouldn’t have to pay for meals, the refrigerator and freezer were still stuffed with food.
But part of her still shrank from the idea of moving into the house. It was silly, she knew, and most impractical given her current financial state. Mom had only lived in the house a few years, and Callie hadn’t visited that often. So it wasn’t like she had any strong memories attached to the place.
Her thoughts went back to the door to her mother’s bedroom and all of her mother’s things that lay behind it. She shivered.
You are overthinking this, she scolded herself. Get the key from Daniel, stop by the house, see how it feels being there alone.
A shadow flashed in front of the car and she slammed on the brakes. Whatever it was had vanished into the darkness. Shaken, Callie told herself her first objective should be getting back to the inn in one piece.
Then, she thought wryly, I can work on staying in one piece after I get back to the inn.
- "That Little Thing" Copyright © 2020 by Susan Stafford