Carol W Hazelwood

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Twilight in the Garden available from

Twilight in the Garden

by Carol W. Hazelwood

Chapter 1

The financial statement rustled in my trembling hands. “You were kind to come to my house to tell me, Harold,” I said, trying to rise above my misery and comfort my lawyer of many years. The demise of Krogen Hardware meant a lifetime of work erased. How would my family react to this news? I straightened in my chair, feeling all of my ninety years.

My den felt claustrophobic, and even the French doors opening to my prize garden, gave me no relief. I gazed at my husband’s portrait on the wall above my cherry wood desk. Carl’s smile, chipped front tooth and all, still warmed me. His European manner had thrilled many a woman and controlled many a man. “It hurts to see a part of our life disappear and be helpless to prevent its happening” I said more to myself than to Harold.

“ Marta, your husband’s company lasted longer than most.” Harold Parks always liked to put a nice spin on bad news.

“ Longer than he did.” I stared down at the balance sheet. “He was so proud that our son continued the business.”

“ Conrad’s done a reasonable job of managing, but the big companies are driving out smaller business.” He ran his well-manicured hand through his graying hair.

“ Did Conrad send you?” I asked, knowing the truth, but needing to hear it.

Harold looked past me, evading my eyes and my question. “He’s been too busy closing the deal. As the major stockholder you must agree to the sale.”

How like my son to put off bad news. He hated confrontations, and there certainly would be one when the rest of the family heard the news. Could I have prevented this disaster? Several years ago, I’d turned over all financial decision to my children.

“ As stockholders, the girls will have to sign too,” Harold said, fidgeting with his red silk tie.

The girls, as Harold called them, were my daughters, Marilyn and Louise. They’d have a fit if they knew Harold spoke of them as “the girls.” Louise was a strong women rights advocate, and Marilyn assumed marriage and womanhood meant perpetual security. Both had been battered by reality. But at my age, being called a girl had a pleasant ring. In fact, my bridge club referred to themselves as girls.

“ Would it have made any difference if we hadn’t taken distributions when Conrad sold the stores in the north?” I asked, remembering how exasperated the others had been at Conrad when he’d insisted upon selling them. His sisters hadn’t listened to him then, and I, foolishly, had not intervened. Peace had descended only when a large share of the profit had been distributed.

“ Might have given you more time, but the inevitable would have happened.” Harold’s pearl gray suit glinted as sun strands spread across the couch where he sat. “There’s no guilt in the loss of the business. Economics of big business was against you. Conrad probably hung on longer than he should have.” Harold took out another folder from his black leather briefcase. “The documents are straightforward. If you have any questions, call me. Conrad can explain the sales agreement to you and the girls.”

“ I suppose we must meet as a family.” I sighed. “It won’t be pleasant, but the sooner the better. They’re coming this evening to celebrate my birthday.”

He smiled. “I’d forgotten. Your ninetieth, right?”

I nodded. “I used to think eighty was old.”

He began to rise, but I put out my hand as if by preventing him from leaving I could change the news he’d brought.

“ Louise handles my checkbook now, but I was wondering… From what you say, this sale covers expenses, taxes, and the employees’ salaries. With nothing left, I’ll have to cut my expenses. I don’t even know what my financial situation is. What should I do?”

“ You’ll have to talk to Louise and your accountant about that. You’ve got the house. It’s unencumbered and worth a great deal.”

“ I couldn’t be that bad off. And I don’t plan to sell. The children can worry about the house after I’m gone.”

“ Which shouldn’t be for a long time.”

“ Be realistic, Harold. Even I can’t live forever,” I said, as I accepted the documents from him.

He patted my shoulder. “Don’t get up. I’ll see myself out. Happy Birthday, Marta.”

* *

Later in the afternoon, as I dressed for my party, the full import of Harold’s news whirled through my mind. I pictured myself living in one of those infernal old people’s home. “Oh, don’t be a dope,” I said out loud, but worried just the same. Without facts, I drew on paranoia. Was I getting dotty? Would my birthday party turn into a confrontation?

I stood in front of the mirror and gazed at the woman before me. My mind knew my spirit, but my eyes saw my physical frailty. Autumn’s mellow light filtered through my bedroom windows and softened the harshness of my wrinkled skin. I had small jowls, and vertical lines creased my upper lip, making my lipstick run. My worst feature was my prominent nose, but I’d long since resigned myself to it. I’d had a sturdy bone structure, but osteoporosis and arthritis had caught up with me.

The years had gone by in a whisper. My life was coming to an end and my legacy would be my family and the gardens I’d designed. What a small imprint! And Carl’s legacy, his business, would soon vanish. In the end, all that remained was family.

Downstairs the caterers hustled around in the kitchen preparing for the dinner party: crown roast of lamb, green beans and new potatoes, spinach salad and a raspberry flambé for desert. All my favorites. I glanced at the porcelain clock on my bureau. Nearly five o’clock. Soon, my family would gather, but not all, for my great grandchildren were with their father this weekend.

I walked over to my bed, grimacing from the arthritic ache in my knees. I laid out my powder blue skirt and matching over-blouse with its gold buttons. Carl always said blue made my eyes more intense. If only he could be here to share my birthday. We would dance, drink champagne and devour caviar. How long had it been since I’d danced? Thirteen years had passed since Carl died.

I no longer had a waistline, so I adopted the over-blouse style. When you lost your waistline, age had sunk its teeth into you. I was still thin. Well, maybe not thin, but certainly not fat. After dressing, I sat on the side of the bed and wiggled into high heels, despite my tendency to totter in them. These shoes, light blue with gold trim, matched my outfit. I shoved up from the bed and stood before my closet mirror once again. I looked good for ninety. Perhaps I had little to be vain about, but dressing well covered a multitude of imperfections. I tried to stand straighter, but my back refused. My pearl necklace hid the top of my open-heart surgery scar that ran the length of my chest. The pearls were Carl’s gift after our trip to Hong Kong thirty years ago. I clipped on the matching earrings. No pierced ears for me, thank you. When I was young, only fast girls had pierced ears. Nowadays, it seemed men and women had every body orifice pierced.

“ There,” I said out loud, glancing down at the diamond ring I always wore as a memento of my engagement. “Your bride is ready, Carl.”

I walked out my bedroom door to the curved staircase leading to the round entry hall. Carl and I had designed and built the house just before World War II. When Carl died, the family had wanted me to move to a smaller home, but I refused. Now that I was ninety, the push to live more simply in smaller confines would begin anew. Only this time I suspected the argument would be toward a retirement or nursing home. The children would be persuasive. And when they learned of the company’s failure, they might push harder for me to sell, but I would not give up my house and garden. But then, nothing is certain except death.

The stair chairlift had been an extravagance even my children approved of. I used to enjoy exercise, particularly gardening, but now my knees couldn’t handle the wear and tear of climbing stairs. I rode the lift downstairs, and after arriving at the bottom in the center hall, I rose and went into the kitchen. A hurried but not hysterical pace was in process. Georgina, my demanding housekeeper of four years, rode herd on the caterers.

I left Georgina to her mission and walked into the dining room to inspect the table. The white and tangerine-colored roses I’d cut earlier cascaded over the silver epergne. My Chantilly silver gleamed, and my Rosenthal china sparkled. The colored cut-glass wineglasses accented the white lace tablecloth. Would my family notice the elegance?

As my era was ending, I wondered if dining would only mean pizza parlors, fast food, stainless steel, plastics, and microwave dishes? When TV dinner trays became the rage, Carl and I believed the end of American culture was near. Change! So much had happened in my life’s span. From a horse and buggy to a man on the moon. Saturday night baths in the kitchen tub to bathrooms with Jacuzzis. And now everything was computers, cell phones, and things with initials like CD, DVD, and iPod.

The doorbell rang. I glanced from the dining room through the double doors into the hall. The grandfather clock stood mutely against the far wall. Had I misjudged the time? No, still too early for the family. I walked into the round hall and when I swung open the front door, there stood my grandson, Brent, his startling blue eyes full of mischief. His thick auburn hair tumbled over his ruddy brow. He stepped forward with a wild grin and grabbed me in a bear hug. His arms gave me love and joy, and I held onto him in a hungry embrace.

“ You devil,” I said, backing away to look at him. “You still have that outlandish goatee. I thought you were going to shave it off as a birthday present to me?”

Brent stepped inside and handed me a long, thin, beautifully wrapped package. “I thought you’d like this better.”

Arm-in-arm we walked into the living room. Earlier the room had seemed dull and lifeless. Now it radiated warmth and happiness. “You promised the goatee would go.”

“ Oma, I just got off the plane from Hong Kong, hurried to be here on time, and you nag me about my goatee. I haven’t even seen Mother yet.”

“ Louise didn’t think you’d make it home in time, but I set a place for you anyway.”

He dropped down onto the long, canary yellow couch and patted the cushion next to him. “Come sit and open your present.”

“ Shouldn’t I wait till later?”

“ No, you shouldn’t. This is between you and me. The rest have their crazy idea for a gift.” He took my hand and guided me down next to him on the couch.

With fidgety fingers, I unwrapped the lavender paper. Brent tossed the lavender paper aside, eager as a child for me to open his present. An exquisite teak spoon lay inside the box. “What a treasure! You remembered my collection.”

“ How could I forget? That’s what got me interested in the export-import business. Take it out. Feel it.”

The texture was incredibly smooth, the wood grain threaded into a handle of intricate carvings of animals linked by their tails. “It’s lovely and unique. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“ Unique as you.” He leaned over and dropped a kiss on my cheek.

“ You’re a flatterer, and I love it. Is there a story behind the spoon?”

He winked. “Of course. There’s always a story behind every rare piece. It was given to a princess by her beloved before he died in battle.”

“ You made that up.”

He shrugged. “I’m glad you like my gift, but I hurried to get here before the others for another reason.” He paused and gazed at me with a wary look. “I have another surprise for you. I’ve hired a biographer to write your life’s story.”

I leaned back, stunned. “You’re so impetuous, the go-getter of the family.”

“ The family talked about getting someone last year, but no one did anything. We used to talk about Opa taping his life story, and we never did it. I believe I found a writer who has the capacity to put your words down in an interesting style. I know how you ramble. I want your story to be a thorough piece of family history as seen through your eyes.”

“ You’re serious aren’t you?” With the demise of Krogen Hardware, I was pleased that at least Carl’s and my history would be written for future generations to read. “Is the family in on this?” I asked

“ No.” He patted my hand. “It’s to be our secret. No one else must know, not my mother, Marilyn or Conrad, not even Georgina. By the way where is the old witch?”

“ Shame on you.” I glanced in the direction of the kitchen. “She’s overseeing the caterers and giving them fits.”

“ Better the caterers than you.” He crumpled up the beautiful paper I would have saved. “Now. Do you and I have a deal? I’ll have the biographer call you tomorrow, and you can set up a time to meet. Weekends might be best since Georgina is away then. I want you to give every moment of your time to telling your story. No dawdling about.”

“ Why the rush? I don’t feel like dying any time soon.”

“I pray you won’t. No, I take that back. I forbid you to.” He rose and walked about the room as if he were pacing a ship’s deck before a storm. “I want your story to be a Christmas surprise for the family. That doesn’t give us much time.”

“ You’re stroking my ego, but I can’t say I don’t like it.” As I looked at him, I saw how he’d matured these past few years, but he looked tired. Crow’s feet arched at his temples as he graced me with another smile that could melt the heart of any woman. Even I, as his grandmother, was not immune. “You do come up with crazy notions, but as always you’re persistent and charming. I’ll tell my story to your biographer and keep it a secret. Actually it might be quite fun. Is he handsome?”

“ Who?”

“ The biographer.”

He laughed. “Sorry to disappoint, but the biographer is Mrs. Clarissa Lindstrom.”

I smiled and shrugged. “Oh, well. What’s she like?”

“ I don’t know. I haven’t met her, only talked to her on the phone, but she’s got an excellent reputation as an interviewer and as a writer. She’ll keep your counsel private and omit items you absolutely refuse to put on paper.” He hesitated and waggled his finger at me. “Don’t have too many of those will you? I’m sure Mrs. Lindstrom will do a thorough but discrete job. Just give her carte blanche to your thoughts and include the stuff about how Opa won the oil well lawsuit.”

“ That was a legal nightmare.”

“ And important, or so I’ve heard.”

“ Not everything needs to be told.” I watched him as I continued, “The partnership you and I had should remain a secret for now.”

“ Well, since the family never knew, we should keep it that way, or they’ll each want to have you as a financial partner.”

I studied my brave bull of a grandson. No one, not Louise, nor Brent knew I’d set up a separate trust for him with my share from Bren Mar Export Import profits. At my death, he was in for a small financial windfall.

“ I’ve got to leave again tomorrow.” He sat and took my hand. “I’ll be out of town for two weeks, but when I return, I’ll talk to Mrs. Lindstrom and see how the story is shaping up.”

He led a frenetic life, and I worried that he wasn’t running around the world on business as much as he was running away from settling down. He liked women, perhaps too much, and apparently couldn’t bring himself to settle on just one.

“ I have one caveat about this biographer,” I said. “I have to like her. If I don’t, the deal’s off.”

“ Agreed. But from talking to her, I think you’ll get along just fine. She sounded very stubborn, just like you.”

“ You are impudent. And a rascal, but—” The doorbell rang. The rest of the family had arrived.

Brent helped me up from the couch, and I handed him the spoon in its box. “Put this on my desk in the den, while I greet them.”

As I opened the door, Marilyn and her husband John, whisked into the hallway, showering me with hugs and good wishes. I was always wary of how Marilyn would dress. Today was no exception. A silk yellow and beige sari slid around her ample figure, and braided bracelets choked her wrists. Her short spiky graying hair seemed at odds with her outfit. When she’d gained weight, she’d cut off her long mane.

Seeing Brent in the living room, Marilyn rushed to give him a hug. “You made it.”

Brent gave his aunt a tentative hug. He’d never warmed to Marilyn, perhaps because of her bossy ways. She seemed oblivious to his distance and always put it off as, “that’s just his way.” Of course, it wasn’t “his way.” “His way” was outgoing.

Marilyn glanced back at me. “I just knew he wouldn’t stay away from your big day.”

John planted his short wiry figure in front of Brent and shook his hand. “Great to see you,” John said, looking up at Brent’s towering figure. “I hear you travel all over the world.”

Although Carl and I had helped raise Brent after his father died, John had stepped in as the important young male in his life. Conrad should have taken on the task, but he had difficulties with his own son, Stewart.

“ Louise and Conrad are bringing your gift from all of us,” Marilyn said. “Does Louise know you’re in town, Brent? She didn’t say a word to me.”
“I haven’t had a chance to call her. Just got in.”

“ From where?” John asked.

“ Hong Kong,” I chimed in, just as Conrad’s son, Stewart, pushed through the front door that had been left ajar. He looked steady, his eyes clear, but the dark gray under his eyes and his sallow complexion bespoke of his past drug use. My heart went out to him, but I remained angry that he had destroyed the best years of his life.

Time is irredeemable.

“ Oma! Happy Birthday!” he said. “You’re looking good for an octogenarian.”

He must have practiced that greeting and even then he got it wrong. What was the matter with people’s education today? “Thank you for the greeting, Stewart, but I’ve moved past the octo part and into the nona phase. I’m now a nonagenarian.”

“ Hey, that’s funny,” he said. “Ninety in the nineties. Nona Oma.”

When he hugged me, I could smell smoke clinging to his worn suit. I hated the odor, but smoking was better than drugs, and for once I kept my mouth shut. “I’m glad you came,” is all I said. I studied this grandson, who had so much to give life, but who had only found and given pain. His raven hair, coloring from his mother’s side, was on the longish side. His coal-black eyes pounced on you as if you were prey. I wanted to blame Stewart’s mother for his slip into a wayward life, but knew the fault of Stewart’s upbringing came from all sides. “Tell me what you’re doing,” I said.

He shrugged and glanced quickly at the other members of the family chatting by the living room French doors. “Making it. You know, day to day. Appreciate the financial help, Oma. Can’t say I expected it.”

I waved my hand, trying to stay off the subject of money. I’d followed Conrad’s advice and given Stewart just enough to help keep his body and soul together, but not enough for him to return to buying drugs. “That’s all well and good,” I said, “but I meant what are you doing with your life?”

“ Working as a grip for a theatrical company. Assignments come and go, but I’ve held the job for eight months.”

Eight months was the longest Stewart had held a job since he got out of drug rehab. So there was hope, but I sensed the line between staying clean and getting hooked again was reed thin. At thirty-five, he seemed vulnerable and pathetically insecure. “Good for you. Keep at it. Keep trying.” I spun a glance at Brent and wondered if I could convince him to give Stewart a fulltime job in his business. But what was Stewart capable of doing?

“ Dad’s coming with Louise,” Stewart said and then sauntered over to greet the others. He averted his eyes when he shook hands with Brent and John.

How little self-esteem he had.

Marilyn gave him a perfunctory hug.

I sighed. We are so judgmental. A sin I share and fight against.

I didn’t have time to continue that thought process. Marilyn’s daughter, Betty stood in the open threshold with Louise and Conrad stumbling behind her, carrying two huge boxes. “Happy Birthday, Oma,” Betty said. “Don’t peek. We couldn’t wrap it. Hey, Stewart. There’s still one more box to retrieve.”

“ Hi Mom,” Conrad said, between puffs. “Surprise time, but you’ve got to wait.”

“ I’ll give you a hug later, Mom,” Louise said, as she staggered through the front door, her thin face red from exertion.

“ I’m not supposed to get big gifts at my age.” I watched them parade past. Despite my words, I felt flattered and pleased they’d thought of something to give me. “You can put them in the living room by the fireplace,” I said.

Instead of following my instructions, they headed into the den. “Stay in the living room, Oma,” Betty ordered in her throaty voice. “They have to set things up. Stewart, it’s your turn to do your stuff,” she called to him as he came in through the front door with another box.

Stewart followed Louise and Conrad into the den, and nudged the door closed with his foot. After watching the cadre move safely into the den, Betty walked over and gave me a hug. Her brown hair cascaded over my face and her perfume fairly knocked me over. She shared my tailored taste in clothes, but not perfumes.

“ What are you using for perfume these days?”

“ White Shoulder. Do you like it?”

“ A tad sweet.” I bit my tongue to say nothing further. She had a pretty face, but always seemed sad. If I hadn’t known her as a baby, I’d think her unhappy marriage and the custody battle for her three children had caused her downcast expression. But I knew better. Betty had been born with a sad countenance. Was that karma, as her mother believed?

“ I hope they don’t take too long in there.” I walked over to the ice bucket where the neck of the champagne bottle stuck out. “I want to have a toast to my dear family before we sit down to dinner.”

“ We should be toasting you,” Brent said.

Marilyn glanced at the champagne. “Do you have a non-alcoholic drink for John and me?”

“ Of course,” I said. “Non-alcoholic bubbly for you, John, and Stewart. I never forget such things.”

“ Well, I know how much you love your liquor.” Marilyn’s voice held just the smallest hint of rebuke, but I ignored it. Today I would ignore everyone’s faults, including my own.

The door to the den off the living room opened, and Louise emerged. She caught sight of Brent. “You came!” She hurried forward and the two embraced. A tear stung her cheek, smearing her elaborate makeup.

“ Hey, Mom,” Brent said, putting his large hands on her shoulders to set her away from him. “I’ve only been gone a month, and I’ve e-mailed you from time to time.”

“ I know.” Louise dabbed at her tears. Her hazel eyes, like Carl’s, flitted across Brent’s face, then lit on me. “Isn’t it grand to have him home?”

“ I told you he’d come.” I moved toward her. Louise was the tallest of my children, even taller than Conrad. She’d retained her slim figure through ardent workouts at a gym and kept herself coifed in the latest hairstyle.

“ Happy Birthday, Mother,” Louise said, giving me a hug.

“ Time for the big show,” Conrad said from the den doorway. His hazel eyes danced with excitement, his face flushed.

Who was going to enjoy this gift the most? I wondered.

“ Happy Birthday, Mom.” He rushed forward to take my arm. “Come on, everyone. Get into the den for the big surprise.” He shoved everyone ahead of us, and then he and I walked together through the entryway to the den.

Inside, the family gathered around my desk, sang Happy Birthday and watched me with smiling eyes. There on my beautiful wood desk with its inlaid leather sat the most noxious plastic machine. What on earth had they been thinking of? The computer terminal was so large and offensive it nearly took my breath away and just to the side sat another machine, a printer. Whatever would they think of next?

“ Surprised?” Conrad asked, rubbing his hand nervously up and down the side of his serge trousers. A memory flashed of Conrad as a little boy so excited about his birthday party that he threw up.

Looking from one family member to the next, I saw from the glow on their faces how delighted they were with their gift.

And isn’t that what’s important to me? Their happiness.

“ I am, for once, speechless,” I finally said.

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