Lovie Rutledge believed memories were like the tides. Sometimes they rushed in with a pounding roar to topple you over. At other times they gently washed over you, lulling you to complacency and then tugging you back to halcyon days that, with the passing of years, seemed ever sweeter.
She seemed to spend more time with her memories of late, especially on evenings such as this one when the red sun lazily descended over the Intracoastal Waterway, and the jeweled tones of the sky deepened. From the trees, the pensive cries of birds called all to roost. Lovie sat on the windward porch, still and silent, attuned to the moody hour. Sunset was her favorite time of the day, an introspective hour when the sky brought down the curtain on what she knew were her final days.
Lovie leaned her snowy white head against her chair, gave a slight push with her foot, and sighed as she rocked rhythmically back and forth, like the waves slapping against the shore. A small smile of relief eased across her face.
Peace at last, she thought.
The wailing winds of the hurricane that had blown across her small island a week earlier had left in their wake the incessant guttural roar of chain saws. The Isle of Palms had been pummeled, as had most of the South Carolina coast. It would take months to clean up. As though in apology, Mother Nature graced the island with crisp after-storm breezes that spurred the populace to a frenzy of repairs. Lovie was glad for the activity-the bellowing of voices, honking of horns, laughter of children, whoops from the beach, high-pitched calls of greeting as families returned home from evacuation. She heard in the clamor the shared exuberance of hope.
And yet, Lovie longed for the hush and lull of pace that came at the day’s end.
Stop your complaining, old woman, she admonished. You should be grateful that you wake up at all! Birdcall or hammering on wood-whichever! The sounds of life around her were welcome-especially now as death hovered like a thief, waiting for its opportunity to snatch away her last breath.
Lovie sank deeper into the cushion and let her tired body ease as she stared out again at a smattering of yellow flowers that had managed to cling to the vines during the storm, and beyond them, the sea. The Atlantic Ocean breathed like a beast snoring serenely in the distance. The gentle rolling water cloaked the secrets it held, while the earth revealed all. Ah, but she wasn’t fooled by her old friend.
I thought you were going to take my house with this last storm-and me along with it,she thought with a faint chuckle. Well, I thank you for leaving us be. At least for a little while longer. She sighed and kicked off again with her foot. I’ve known you too long and too well not to be wise to your mercurial nature. You appear so gentle and peaceful tonight. But Lord help the fool who ignores you.
Lovie suddenly coiled in a spasm of coughing that racked her frame, so thin now she could be mistaken for a child. When at last the fit subsided, she bent forward, clasping the arms of the chair, gasping for air.
“Mama! Are you okay?”
Lovie turned her head to see Cara’s worried face inches from her own. She felt Cara’s larger hand tighten over hers in a reassuring squeeze. Dear, sweet, daughter, she thought as her pale blue eyes found refuge in Cara’s dark brown ones. There were crow’s feet at the corners, adding maturity to the wide-eyed worry. Cara had been dismayed at turning forty, crying that her youth was over and now she was on the downhill slope. Lovie knew better. Cara was still so young! So strong and confident.
Lovie felt the panic that always came with the coughing spells loosen its grip. Gradually her breath came more easily. She nodded weakly.
Cara’s eyes narrowed, quickly checking for signs that Lovie needed oxygen or a dose of pain medication. “Mama, it’s getting chilly. Let’s go inside.”
Lovie didn’t have the breath to answer, but she weakly shook her head.
Cara hesitated, then with a tsk of mild frustration, she didn’t force the issue, as she might have just months earlier.
Lovie leaned back again in her chair. Staring at her from the settee across the room was a large calico cat. The cat had mysteriously appeared after the hurricane, lost and mewling piteously. Cara fed her daily, cleaned up after her, and petted her long fur whenever she passed. Cara called the cat the Uninvited Guest and pretended not to care one way or the other about her. But Lovie could tell she was secretly pleased the cat had decided to stay. It was Cara’s first pet.
Cara was rather like that cat, Lovie thought with some amusement. The previous May, Lovie had asked her only daughter to come home for a visit. She hadn’t thought Cara would come. They’d been estranged for some twenty years. Cara was always too busy, too involved in her career to find time to come back to Charleston. If Lovie was honest with herself-and this late in life, why be anything but honest?-she had to acknowledge that Cara just plain didn’t want to return. She preferred the crispness of the North in all its forms. Lovie had prayed that she and her headstrong daughter could patch up their differences before she died. She took a long breath and exhaled slowly, feeling the weariness of her years. How did one reconcile after so long a time? It was in faith that she’d written, and in a twist of fate, Cara had returned.
Cara had been laid off from her high-powered job at an advertising agency in Chicago. She’d arrived at Lovie’s door at the onset of summer, feeling lost and restless, uncharacteristically adrift. She’d stayed the summer on Isle of Palms, ostensibly to take care of her mother. And yet, over the past months, Cara, like the lost cat, had been cared for, stroked, needed. The summer had made Cara wiser and more content-not so quick to chase the mouse.
And in the process, she’d rediscovered her mother’s love. This had been the answer to Lovie’s prayers.
It was autumn now, however, and like the season’s end, Lovie’s strength was ebbing with the receding tide. She had terminal cancer, and both she and Cara knew that soon the Lord would call her home.
“Okay, Mama,” Cara conceded, patting Lovie’s hand. “We’ll sit out here a little longer. I know you hate to miss a sunset. Would you like a cup of tea? I’ll make you one,” she went on, not waiting for an answer.
Lovie didn’t want tea just now, but Cara needed something to do. Though they didn’t say the words often, Lovie knew that Cara expressed her love with action. Cara rose effortlessly from the chair, a move Lovie could hardly recall being able to make.
Cara was strikingly good-looking, tall and slender with glossy dark hair she usually wore pulled back in a carefree ponytail. But tonight was cooler and the humidity low so she let it fall unkempt to her shoulders. It swayed in rhythm with the few long strides it took her to cross the wooden porch.
Lovie’s gaze swept across the porch of her beloved beach house that was showing signs of age. Time . . . it passed so quickly! Where did all the years go? How many summers had this dear house survived? How many hurricanes? Two white wooden rocking chairs sat side by side where mother and daughter sat most nights to enjoy the Lowcountry sunset. The recent category one hurricane had destroyed her pergola, and the new screens Cara had just installed hung in tattered shreds, waving uselessly in the offshore breezes. She heard the teasing hum of a mosquito in her ear.
Her little house on Ocean Boulevard had always been a place of refuge for Lovie, a sanctuary through good times and bad, ever since childhood. In the twilight, the quaint and tidy lines of her 1930s beach cottage appeared part of the indigenous landscape beside the tall palms, the raucous wildflowers, and the clumps of sea oats on the dunes. From her seat on the porch, she could see straight out to the Atlantic Ocean without the obstruction of one of those enormous houses that bordered the island’s coastline. It was the same view she’d always had, all these many years. When the wind gusted, it rippled across the tall, soft grass like rosy waves and carried her back to happier days when the island was a remote outpost.
Lovie’s parents had given the modest prewar cottage to her when she’d married, and she, in turn, would leave it to her daughter. Her house on Tradd Street in Charleston with the heirloom furniture and silver she had already handed down to her son, Palmer. Once upon a time she’d loved that house with a grand passion, yet never as steadfastly as she’d loved Primrose Cottage. She’d created wonderful memories here. The best . . .
But her days were fading as quickly and surely as the sun. In these final precious moments, Lovie sought to divest herself of the encumbrances that held her to the present, tugging at her attention, diverting her from the path her heart wanted to follow.
As the sun lowered in the west and purpling sea met the horizon to blend into one vast vista, Lovie felt the line between the past and the present blur as well. She allowed her thoughts to turn, as they often did at this moody hour, to Russell Bennett.
He was waiting for her. Somewhere out in the vast purpling expanse of water, Russell was biding his time. She sensed this with every fiber in her being. Russell had been the love of her life. She’d lived long enough to say so, though one summer was all they’d had. In retrospect, with the passage of time and grace, Lovie understood that she’d been pulled toward her fate as surely as the tides were pulled by the moon.
She felt it now. She could sense herself slipping again in the insistent undertow of the past, calling her back. There was no use fighting it. It was so easy to simply close her eyes.