“Free, A Novella”
by Felicia Denise
Lennie audibly exhaled as the tension left her body and her shoulders sagged. “You two! You had me so worried there for a second. Look, I had a very special relationship with Auntie Di, and I know I was important to her, but I have no problems sharing any of what she left me with my fam-…” Linda cut her off in mid-sentence.
“Honey, you don’t understand. We’re not trying to take anything away from you. It’s quite the opposite, actually.” Frowning, Lennie threw her hands up.
“And we’re back to talking in code!” Her dad held up his hand to silence them both.
“Lenore, your mom and I have some real concerns that need to be addressed.” Briefly glancing at his wife, he reached into his back pocket. “And we’re not the only ones.” He held out an envelope to her. “Your aunt wrote this about three months ago.”
Stunned, Lennie stared at the cream colored envelope in her father’s hand, but she made no move to take it from him. Standing, Burt reached down and placed the letter in Lennie’s hand. “Your mom and I will give you some privacy. When you’re ready, come join us in the kitchen.” He leaned down again, this time, kissing her on the forehead. As he stepped back, Linda rushed forward, cradling her daughter’s face in her hands.
“I love you so much, Lennie. You were always my practical child. You wouldn’t do anything unless it made sense or had a purpose. I think that’s why Diane took to you so quickly. She said you had entirely too much wisdom for a child, and had an old soul.” A single tear slid down Linda’s cheek as the faint trace of a smile formed on her lips. “I used to get mad at Diane, and accuse her of trying to take you from me.” Lennie’s eyes widened.
“Sshh!” Linda cut her off. “I know I was being foolish. We were all so young back then. All newly married, and some of us were already parents. We didn’t know the first thing about anything…just pretending to be adults. Di was a great auntie. Babysitting you girls so Burt and I could enjoy a quiet evening at home or see a movie.”
Lennie listened intently as she wondered about all the great stories her family had shared, and realized this was the first time she had heard this particular story. Linda’s smile faded. “Then she got “the visit” from the Marine representatives. Conrad had been killed during the Battle of Khe Sanh. Di was devastated. Something in her broke that day that couldn’t be fixed. Her husband gone. No children. She mourned and went on, but sometimes, it seemed as though she was just going through the motions. Not really living, just existing.”
Her smile returned as she chuckled softly. “But then you started walking, talking and getting into everything. We were all amazed at how quickly you learned and remembered things. Diane marveled over you and thought you were the best thing since sliced bread. When I got sick out of the blue, she gladly stepped in to care for you, and even took time off from her job. After nearly a week of me laying around, your father dragged me to the doctor, and that’s how and when we found out I was pregnant with Elaine. It was a hard pregnancy. The morning sickness and fatigue lasted right up until Elaine was born. That should have been my clue that she was going to be a difficult child.” Mother and daughter shared a grin. “But that big sister mine, she stepped in like a trooper.”
“More like a tornado”, Burt quipped. Lennie giggled out loud for the first time since Diane’s attorney left.
“Burton Kelimore! You know she meant well, and she was a tremendous help to us,” Linda chided, then shushed her husband and returned her gaze to her daughter. “He’s still ticked because the man could not boil water when we got married, but by the time Elaine was born, he could prepare a simple but full meal. Di had insisted he learn, and she was the one who taught him.”
“She could have had an excellent career as a military interrogator…or perhaps a prison guard.” She glared at Burt, and couldn’t keep the smile from forming when he winked at her and grinned. “You know your sister was brutal, and an exacting taskmaster. C’mon, admit it.”
“I’ll do no such thing, Mr. Kelimore. She simply liked things done a certain way.”
“Yeah…hers!” Linda perched balled fists on her hips and truly glared at him this time. Burt knew when to give up. He began backing towards the office door.
“Aren’t I supposed to be making coffee? Yes, I am! If anyone needs me…”, and with another wink, he was gone. Lennie felt better seeing her parents do their usual banter. Her mom shook her head and smiled, still staring at the empty doorway.
“That man vexes me so.” Hearing the love in her mother’s voice for her father caused Lennie’s chest to tighten just a little. Did she sound like that when she spoke of Ranard? She knew she did not. “What I was trying to tell you is that it was during my second pregnancy that you began spending more time with your aunt. She bought you all new clothes and toys. Even combed your hair differently. She doted on you and treated you like a little china doll. Didn’t take much for my hormonal self to verbally attack her and accuse her of trying to steal my baby.” Linda smiled sadly at the memory. “Your father finally calmed me down enough to make me think clearly. Diane had already made up her mind that no one would ever replace Conrad, so she took all the love she had for him, and any children they might have had and poured it into you.”
She leaned down and hugged Lennie tightly, then mimicked Burt’s earlier gesture, kissing her forehead. “She loved you as much as your father and I do, Lenore, maybe more in some ways. As you read her words, please try not to judge her too harshly.” With that, Linda left the office to join her husband in the kitchen.
Lennie stared at the envelope, recognizing her aunt’s bold, but elegant handwriting. A sense of dread washed over her. Her parents seemed to feel this letter would upset her, and whatever it contained, they agreed with it. Giving herself a mental shake, and silently reprimanding herself for fearing the unknown, Lennie opened the envelope, removed the thick stack of stationary, and began to read.
September 17, 1993
My Dearest Lennie Penny,
Since you are reading this, I am gone. I apologize, sweet girl, for not telling you about my illness, but I felt you had enough on your plate caring for your young family and running your business. I knew you’d want to be here with me, and that just wouldn’t do.
You and the boys left here yesterday, after what was probably the best time in my life since Conrad was killed. The days at the beach, the park…the cookouts in the backyard – Lennie, I felt as though I had a real life, a full life. Linda always gave me a bad time about trying to steal her baby, and I know I was pushy at times, but I learned my boundaries and stayed within them. But these last two weeks? I selfishly allowed myself to believe you were MY daughter, and Duncan and Myron were my grandchildren. I’ve missed our times together since you married and started a new life as a wife and a mother. Thank you for agreeing to spend your vacation with me. You will never know what it meant to have you here with me. I will treasure these memories until I take my last breath.
I am so proud of the beautiful young woman you’ve grown into. I watched you with the boys, and all I could do was smile. They have the same sense of wonder and natural curiosity you had at that age, and you feed it beautifully. Duncan asked you a million questions at the petting zoo in the park, and you patiently answered each one. He watched you as you spoke, with this serious look on his face as if he was committing each and every word to memory. You are a fantastic mother, and those boys are as blessed to have you as you are them.
I just wish they had a different father. There, I said it. Your choices or decisions have never been questioned before, not by me nor your parents. You were always so pragmatic. Even if I didn’t agree, you were so confident and grounded in your decisions, I still knew you’d succeed.
But then, Ranard entered your life…and you seem to flounder for the first time in your life. My heart broke when you announced your engagement, but I still held out hope you would come to your senses and not go through with the wedding. Since the day you walked down the aisle, I’ve wondered, “Why?” I only wish I had been brave enough to ask you to your face. I’ve always wanted to know why you walked away from a promising career with endless potential to marry a man who seems to treat you like a minor accessory. You were valedictorian in a class of three thousand, Lennie! You! The world was yours for the taking! But you left it all behind for a man who called you stupid in front of your family for spilling ketchup on his shirt! The only thing that saved Ranard from getting punched in the face that day was your mother pushing Burt and me through the patio doors! We were so angry at his callous self-righteousness, but we were angry with you too, Lennie. You took his verbal abuse! You didn’t stand up for yourself. You were not the same Lennie who punched TWO older boys for teasing and touching Elaine in high school. Or the Lennie who was flat on her back with the flu for nearly a week during finals week your sophomore year of college, but walked into your computer science class with your head held high determined to take the final exam, and walked out as the only student who aced it. I didn’t see the Lenore Helena Kelimore who had mastered all ninety-six songs in the Danvers Music Academy catalog before she entered high school. In every area of your life, you had always stood out. You never tried to be the center of attention or sought the limelight, but it found you! It always found you! Your inner light shone brightly, and I believe that’s what drew people to you. You were never a vain or prideful child, but your dignity and grace were evident long before you reached your adult years. Why are you allowing this man to dim your light?
And you are allowing it, Lennie. I don’t, for one minute, believe that Ranard controls or dominates you in any way. He’s more like an unruly child acting out, and you’re the tolerant, long-suffering parent.
But that’s not what marriage is about, Lennie.
I’ve watched you both when you weren’t looking. I’ve never seen him hold your hand, or kiss or caress your cheek. I’ve never heard him compliment you, or say anything positive about you. But I held out hope. You have a reason for everything you do, so I knew there was a reason you married that man. But was it love, Lennie? As your third anniversary fast approaches, you’ve already been married longer than Conrad and me. But we had so much joy and laughter, Lennie. We were disappointed that I didn’t get pregnant before he shipped, but that did dampen our happiness one bit.
Where is your joy, Lennie? What makes you happy? And it has to be more than your children, because they will grow up and leave. I speak from experience even though I wasn’t blessed to be a mother. I shared my sister’s heartache and turmoil when you left.
I also finally shared my concerns about you with her after our vacation. I was both relieved and saddened to find out she understood, and felt the same way. Relieved because I now had someone to talk to about it – I couldn’t talk to you, Lennie. I knew you’d be angry and I didn’t want to lose you – and I was also sad because if Linda saw the problems I saw, they were real and not the overactive imagination of a nosy old woman.
I’ve always known you would be my heir. I almost told you on a couple of occasions, but I knew you’d insist that I sell everything and donate the money to some organization saving whales, or hamsters, or gophers…or whatever is all the rage at the moment. But no, I want you have what was mine. It gives me peace to know I can do this one last thing for you and the children.
However, I am not done. You’re probably fit to be tied by now. Clutching this letter with both hands, beads of perspiration forming on your forehead as you think about digging up my body to tell me about my bossy self. My sweet Lennie Penny. I hope you are sitting down, because if you are angry with me now, by the time you finish this letter, you WILL dig up my body!
©Felicia Denise, 2016