The Kindly Visitor

Ellina was a patient woman, with a serenity built up within her through a lifetime of over nine decades. She had earned her feeling of peace, having lived through the births, deaths, wars, all the political and selfish foolishness of the world in her time.

But today her patience ran thin. She felt expectant, anxious, almost giddy. Except for her concerned and loving family, she had not received visitors for some time now, even though her husband, Ricky, gone these last 12 years, had whispered in his final days that with him out of the picture, new gentlemen suitors would soon be knocking at her door. Always a jokester, even to the last, her dear Ricky.

The last gurglings of the coffeepot came through with the wafting of the new-brew aroma. Even the smell of coffee to her had the color of brown, chocolatey, entirely fitting to its appearance, and more pleasing than the somewhat bitter taste. She rose and shuffled to the kitchen counter, hefted and shook the teapot to make sure it had enough water, and started the stove under it. You never knew what a visitor might like, and she wanted to be prepared.

Ellina forced herself to a measure of calmness. All the anxiousness in the world wouldn’t make the visit happen any sooner. Or who knew? It just might. She went over to her living room bookcase and studied the offerings for something to kill time. Maybe a cat mystery? No, she didn’t have that long. A spooky short story? No, the author wrote splendidly but just didn’t know how to keep it truly short. She sighed and, in her slow, halting way, short-stepped to her magazine basket, picked up a “Better Homes and Garden,” and took it with her to her favorite chair, the one that she’d trained over the years for just the right amount of softness and embrace to the cushions.

A knock sounded at the front door, and she laughed ruefully, her cackle rapping through the quiet air. “Figures, as soon as I get my butt set,” she said to no one at all, and rocked back and forth to push to her feet, making it on the third try. Her kids and grandkids always worried about her level of pain, even though she assured them that she wasn’t really in pain. She was just old, with her worn joints and ever weaker bodily systems making their age known, just like the muscle stiffness of a younger athlete let them know that limbs had been overworked. In her case, they had been overworked by being alive for so damn long.

She opened the door and was pleased by the appearance of a young man – young to her, anyway – dressed neatly, hair combed but not plastered in place, and with no metal in his face or ink on his neck or hands, like she was so used to seeing on young people nowadays.

A genuine, friendly creased his face. “Ellina, ma’am, hello. Are you ready?”

“I think so,” she answered. “But I’ve put on coffee and tea, if we can visit first.” And punctuating her comment, the teapot began whistling in the back.

The man hesitated, then surrendered. “Sure. I’d love a cup.”

She stood back, ever the mindful hostess, motioning him to the kitchen table, closing the door behind them.

He was by a chair at the kitchen table, standing and waiting for her, and his courtesy pleased her immensely. But she said, raising her crackly voice over the shrilling teapot, “Oh, you’re my guest. Go ahead and sit, and I’ll bring you something. Coffee? Tea? Something else?”

“Oh, tea, please,” he replied, and sat.

She went to the coffeepot first, switching it off, and then went through the mechanics of turning off the burner under the teapot, putting the teabags in the cups, and pouring out service for two. The water, poured at boiling point, released a cloud of steam as it hit the cup. “I like it when people ask for tea,” she remarked. “I like both coffee and tea, but tea just seems like such a refined, civilized drink. I never make it in the microwave. Somehow the experience just isn’t right without taking the time with the water, pouring it out, and steeping it. You know?”

“My sentiments exactly,” he replied. “And no sugar or cream, please. Just tea.”

“You’re impressing me more all the time,” she called back, her hint of flirtiness that she had intended lost in the rattle of her aged voice.

I am just too old, she thought, and the feeling brought no bitterness. It was a simple statement of fact.

She returned to the table, arranging the cups for him and her and an extra saucer in the middle. “For the teabags,” she explained.

He picked the bag up and started a slow dipping. “Anything you want to talk about?”

“Lots of things,” she said, studying her own cup, swirling the bag, watching the water darken as the tea leached out from the bag. “Too much for you to have the time for, I’m willing to bet.”

He offered his second smile. “Try me.”

She quipped, “Death by boredom. It’s your funeral,” and his smile turned into a full laugh.

“Fire away.”

She sipped at her tea first. It was just too hot, and she put the cup back in the saucer. “I’ve lived a long time.”

He nodded. “By human standards. By a fruitfly’s standards, incredibly long. By a sequoia tree’s standards, you’re still a toddler.”

“Well, our standards are all I know.”

“Fair enough.”

Ellina leaned back and started talking.

She remembered the joys and energy and carefree play of early youth, the free-ranging emotions of puberty with their waves of creativity and import that seemed so profound then and so amusing now in retrospect. She recalled her first love that was returned, not Ricky who would turn out to be her forever love, but the first one of real impact, a wild blooming flower of emotion, doomed to its own winter, but riotous while it lasted.

“You never forget your first love.”

He nodded and sipped. “I’ve heard that.”

She raised her cup, but the tea was still a touch too hot.

She had been anxious to start driving, with the freedom that the automobile brought and the maturity that driving implied. When she had begun life behind the wheel, it was still culturally a man’s avocation, and some comedians’ routines of the time were rife with reference to women drivers, the term carrying an aura of silliness and incompetence. In contrast to that, she had been careful and conscientious. Maybe she got a couple tickets in her time, but never an accident that was her fault, and she took pride in hearing her family describe her as a “good driver.”

She’d wanted to go to college, but it was not to be. In those early days just after high school, she waited tables to make her way, constantly smiling at people she didn’t like, saving money for her education. And then she met Ricky.

“He didn’t impress me much at first. He came to the restaurant a few times, talked to me, and of course I kept up my end of it, because that’s what you do, but he was awkward and just not all that impressive. But he finally asked me for my number, and I thought twice because I’d turned down those offers from men in the restaurant plenty times before, but then I gave it to him, and I sure am glad I did. You just don’t know the good that’s right in front of you until you allow yourself the risk of seeing it.”

She sipped at her tea again, and this time it was perfect, cool enough to drink and release its flavor, but too hot to gulp, forcing her to savor the taste carried with the heat.

The first call had gone well and had burned up the phone line, back in the day when a phone call meant time exclusive to your conversation partner. But he didn’t ask her out, which was confusing. “It turned out he was just shy, and he’d used up all his courage in just getting my number.” Two more restaurant visits and two more calls later, he had finally asked her out. That had gone well, too, except that he was too shy to offer to kiss her, and it was too inappropriate in that day and age for her to make that first move.

The romance grew, although seemingly and frustratingly planted in the platonic stage, with them engaged in long talks over dinner, before and after movies, on walks, talking about their educational, professional, and domestic dreams. Then at one point during a walk at night, he had stopped short of a streetlight’s circle of light. Confused, she had stopped with him, and he had said, “You are so pretty,” and leaned in to kiss her, and her burst of thought was finally! and she had responded with an intensity that ensured that they both meant it.

During their growing romance, he had gotten word that a grant had been approved to help him with school. Between that and his work at an insurance claims division, he thought a degree was finally achievable. Ellina had said, “And I can work and help out,” which had pleased him greatly, especially once he realized that she was nudging herself into an implicit role of wife.

Passion had grown, and their making out eventually turned to sex, although never completely comfortable because it was unseemly for them to be staying over at each other’s place too long, and it would be downright scandalous, not to mention borderline unaffordable, for them to find a motel room and have to register as two married people before the clerk would allow a young couple to stay in the same room.

Ellina wasn’t fooling her mother, though. Her mother cornered her in a quiet aside during a family dinner, with Ricky in the dining room with the rest of the clan, and asked, “When is that man going to make you an honest woman and ask you to marry him?”

“I don’t know, Mom. We’ve got his school to think of. We’re not in a big hurry.”

Her mom had snorted. “Sure. Why should he buy the cow when he’s getting the milk for free?”

And Ellina, on the forefront of what would later become a part of the gender equality arena, had replied evenly, “I’m liking the milk, too, Mom.”

Ellina paused in her storytelling, smiling in reverie. “That shocked my mother, and she was angry at first, but I think it helped make her respect me. One, that I could be blunt with her, and two, that I was strong enough to stand up for myself and what I wanted.” She shook her head, still smiling. “But my oh my, that man was good in the sack, especially when we were young and had all that energy.”

She looked up at the man across the table from her, half expecting him to be embarrassed or even revolted by hearing an old woman talk about her sex life. But he wasn’t. He simply smiled back, sipped at his tea again, and placed it back on the saucer. Ellina looked at the cup, ready to refresh it if needed. But the cup still appeared full.

Ellina continued. They had indeed gotten married, managing to do so before she got pregnant, and then they made the baby that would turn out to be their first son. Ricky was full-time at the university, working part-time, she was working full-time, and they moved to married student housing or, as the residents called it, “The Baby Factory,” before she went to the hospital and gave birth.

And indeed more babies came. She was pregnant with their second by the time he graduated, with her feeling embarrassed at his cap-and-gown ceremony, packing along her seven-month belly. Two more babies came during his early career. Altogether, two boys, two girls, a perfect mix.

But the youngest one, Martin, had been a troubled youngster, morose and demanding in his teenage years, then dipping into an alcohol and drug problem as an adult, before it had become fashionable. He and a hard-looking girl had produced a baby, by that time Ellina and Ricky’s third grandchild and second grandson, but Martin had died in a whiskey-fueled car wreck, fortunately not killing anyone but himself. The woman and the grandson had moved away.

Both Ellina and Ricky had tried to keep in touch with the two, but maybe not with the focus that they should, with their lives, their work, their other grown children, and their other grandchildren, more of whom kept appearing. There had been a concerted attempt at contact with Martin’s widow and the grandson, with an offer to fly out to visit them, or fly mother and her son back to home, but the offer had been rebuffed, and contact had slowly dissolved to nearly nothing. Then perhaps a decade later, the long-lost grandson, Chet, had called out of the blue, saying he’d like to come by. Ricky had gotten excited, calling it the prodigal son story all over again and gathering the family to meet their long-lost relative.

The resulting visit had been awkward. Once they were past the pleasantries, there was little connection made, except that Chet seemed weirdly enamored with another granddaughter, Lily, and had made subdued comments about needing money but never directly asked for any, and left empty-handed, never to return.

“Marty’s one of my few regrets,” she said. “If we had just spent more time with him? More love on him? I keep wondering with him being the last child, maybe we just took kids more for granted and didn’t care for him enough. I don’t know. I just don’t know,” and she wiped at her tears then, embarrassed at now being a weepy old woman, mooning over opportunities lost.

Her visitor raised a hand. “You can’t be like that,” he said, his voice soft but direct. “People who are loved can grow up to be a menace, and people who are neglected can turn out as jewels. Parents who put their hearts into it are more successful, but the world is full of randomness, and anything can happen to turn a child bad. Or even an adult. You meant well, you did your best, and that matters. It’s not a contest of who raises the finest children. The honor lies in the constant effort to try to do so.”

She wiped away the last of the tears and sipped again. The tea was growing a little cold. “That helps. Thank you. And otherwise, I think we’ve done well by them. You have a husband and kids and think all your love encompasses them. Then you have the ones your kids marry, then grandkids, and your love finds a whole new level. Then great-grandkids, and you marvel at what a joy the new little ones bring to your life, although by that time there’s a little more emotional distance for them. Except for Marty, we’ve been a good, tight, loving family. Ricky and I can take credit for that much.”

“Best to live with the happiness of the love you have and to die without all those regrets.” His voice was steady and neutral. Wisps of steam hovered and circled lazily around the surface of his tea.

Ellina sighed, an exhalation of fatigue tinged with bitterness. “Sometimes you earn those regrets, sir.”

“What do you mean?”

She started talking again. She had worked in an office, one of the secretarial staff to an executive who oversaw a large franchise. She had developed a secret little crush on a vice president in the complex, but her marital resolve was solid, and she kept it entirely to herself. Then came an office party at the executive’s spacious house. Ricky couldn’t accompany her, and food and alcohol were in abundance. In an atmosphere of tipsy, lowered inhibitions, her crush had approached her and told her what an attractive, desirable woman she was, an advance that led to passionate necking in a quiet corner of the house, followed in the ensuing days by three surreptitious rendezvous at a local hotel.

It was exciting in its danger and exploration, because it was a step completely out of what she considered her character, and the shock of the new experience enhanced the thrill. But it didn’t allay her self-recriminations. After the third dalliance, guilt-ridden and terrified that it might bloom out of control, she had ended it, never telling Ricky or anyone else about it, and living with a constant background fear for a while that she might have contracted something from her temporary lover, or that the story might leak out anyway, or that others already knew and were talking about it and it would get back to Ricky and their kids.

Her guilt could perhaps have been reduced by her suspicion, almost a certainty, that Ricky had had his own fling. She’d had hints from a sudden shift in his behavior, of his comfort with certain subjects, and all during a time when their happiness with each other was at a low ebb and he had opportunities with overtime and traveling. But he had never alluded to it, never confessed, and she supposed that was fair, given her own indiscretion.

“I guess there was something rough going on with us at the time, but if it was, we got over it, and our love recovered. Still, I wish I had never done that. Maybe he died wishing the same thing for himself. But I’m glad that it never came out between us. It’s sort of like two great friends who have a falling-out over one issue, and they resume their friendship but never talk about that issue again, or even that it was an issue. And that’s how they preserve that friendship. We didn’t talk about such things, and it let our love revive.” Ellina looked up to her visitor. “You must not think much of me now.”

He shrugged. “It’s the human condition. No one’s perfect, and if they were, there would be no test of character. People just don’t pass that test with 100 percent. Singular marital bonding is a condition that societies have forced on themselves. There are basic drives – eat, excrete, procreate. Procreate means the sex drive, which is basic, ingrained. Humans are not naturally monogamous. Things will happen.” He leaned forward and continued, voice earnest, “It’s like raising kids. It’s not the perfect result that counts. It’s the quality of the person in their intentions and actions through their lives that matter.”

“You are too kind,” she replied “But in your own way, very comforting.” She picked up her cup and drained the last of her tea. “I’ve bent your ear long enough, sir. Should we be leaving?”

“Whenever you’re ready. This time is yours to call your own.”

She put her hands on the table and pushed herself to an unsteady stance. He rose, following her lead.

“No, we’d best be going,” she said. “My daughter will be coming by later to check on me. She’s good about that.”

He nodded. “All right.”

He led her to the door. As Ellina walked across the expanse of her living room, energy returned to her muscles, her bones, her steps, her movements. She straightened her posture without creaks or aches. The young man reached the door first and held it open for her.

She stopped at the door. “Wait,” she said. “I should clean up those cups.”

He smiled. “I’ve taken care of it. We wouldn’t want your daughter coming in, seeing two empty cups, and wondering what happened.”

She turned around and looked to the kitchen table, which was clear. “My, you work fast. But there’s a full coffeepot for her. She likes her coffee.”

He nodded. “Always the thoughtful, considerate one.”

Ellina turned back to the door, put her hand on the frame, and blinked, surprised. In her dotage, she had come to pay attention to her nails, perhaps compensating for the lines, creases, and blotches of advanced age that marked her hands with ever more prominence. In her knobby fingers, her manicure should have been precise and exquisite, a dark red meticulously applied. But not now. Her fingernails were clear, but neatly trimmed. And her hands had flesh to them again, smooth, strong, unblemished.

She spun back around, her breath quick, looking around her house, so familiar from a life spent there for so many decades. In her favorite chair sat an ancient-looking woman, slumped and rumpled from the crush of years. The woman was utterly still, her head drooped forward on her chest, but her expression was one of peace. In her lap, splayed open, was a “Better Homes and Gardens” magazine. All hopes and dreams realized, spent, or vanished, her fleeting presence on the planet now past.

Ellina turned back to the young man, who was holding the outer screen door open for her. A warm breeze drifted through, echoing the mood of bright sunshine outside. It was a perfect day.

“Do you suppose I’ll ever see Ricky again? And be able to talk to him, tell him how much he meant to me? Or Marty? To tell him how much I loved him? Or…”

She wanted to ask more, about others from who had appeared during the expanse of her long life. She struggled from a lifetime of memories of friends and relatives, once close, a bloom of happiness of all the shared experiences in their lives, followed by the cold shadow of their passing, leaving all their own imprints on her lifetime of memories.

He grinned, an honest grin of genuine humor, of sincere liking, of welcoming friendship, warming and reassuring. “If it’s something each of you would want, I’m sure that will happen.”

Ellina took in a breath, let out a deep sigh, looked outside. The regrets she’d expressed were fading to faint echoes of the mind. Happiness, unrestrained by the weight of human emotional baggage, beckoned. She stepped forward through the door to the bright promise of a new day.

— Grandpa

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