Eleanor Drew Nelson awoke from an afternoon nap, momentarily disoriented, but the pale-green ceiling she was looking up at confirmed that she was still at home. It took longer to sit up than it had the day before, and she gritted her teeth as she made the effort. Feet on the floor, she struggled to tug a pillow behind her, took a long breath and sighed.
Friday or Saturday? Unsure, the thought left her even more flustered. Moving her feet to where she remembered leaving a pair of slippers, she felt the familiar soft fuzzy friends and slipped cold toes into them. The nagging sensation of having to use the toilet got her slowly to her feet, and using the walker that was always within reach, she set out on the twenty-two slow-step journey to the bathroom.
The act of sitting or standing was a chore but she'd resigned herself to its never getting easier and tried not to complain to anyone asking after her health. She braced herself with the walker and washed her hands … dried them on one of the flowered towels her daughter had given her the Christmas before, then looked at her image in the medicine cabinet mirror above the sink.
Eighty-nine years had taken their toll on feminine beauty that had turned heads in her youth. She tried not to feel sorry for herself, knew aging was a fact of life, but those deep lines and facial wattles; that thinning white hair … the tyranny of flesh always caused her to turn away from her reflection.
She'd made necessary concessions to age, selecting garments easy to get into and later to shed. Unable to drive for over twenty years, she'd become dependent on a few old friends and her only daughter, a woman who'd married, lived nearby, and raised two children.
The Meals-on-Wheels people, too, she thought, what would I do without them?
Eleanor knew by the way sunlight cast its familiar shadow that it was close to three in the afternoon. She returned to the couch and sat again. How many times had she made that journey? The unfinished novel of unrequited love lay open face down where she'd left it on the coffee table. It wasn't really a good story, but she thought about it for a few minutes, put on her glasses, reached for it and leaned back against the cushions.
At least it isn't cold anymore, she thought. She’d allowed her daughter to turn off the heater pilot light after she’d convinced Eleanor it really was summer.
Eleanor read for a while. The descriptions took her back to earlier years when she'd done some of the same foolish things as the heroine. She hadn't fallen into the trap of carrying on conversations with book’s characters but had ready suggestions for the story's folly-bent femme fatale. Tiring of the mush, she set the book down and picked up the television remote to watch the afternoon Travel Channel program, a thinly disguised commercial for Bahamas vacations.
Eleanor Drew had traveled extensively, both before her marriage to young Lieutenant Albert Edwin Nelson in 1919, and afterward, moving from port to port at the request of the Secretary of the Navy until her husband had been killed in the south Pacific in the battle of Leyte Gulf. Over the years she recovered from her loss and grief but never remarried.
Unwilling to experience such anguish again, she'd found companionship in the company of several widows her age. They'd formed a tight knit group, read and shared insights on books such as Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, and Walden; traveled and dined together, discussed art, philosophy and, as some of her "socially selective" friends might have called them, the "finer things in life". They'd traveled to Europe and Africa, and she would have visited China if she'd been allowed, but obstinate politics on both sides of the Pacific stood in her way. She'd enjoyed Canada, especially larger cities like Montreal and Toronto where people seemed so civilized.
When younger, she'd loved the wilderness and excitement of adventure. She and Albert had spent months in the great outdoors. But as time passed, Eleanor Drew Nelson grew to love the bright lights, gay music and people of means, people with educations.
She wasn't really a snob in any sense of the word and before becoming an invalid herself she'd volunteered long hours at child welfare centers and spoken out for social reform. It was only after arthritis had slowed her that she'd become frustrated with life. The fall that had broken her left hip had been the coup de grace.
Eleanor Drew Nelson hadn't been out of her home for over six years. Quite simply, there’d been no one to take her out and about. Earlier female friends, the widows with whom she'd traveled the world, had been tapped on the shoulder for the last dance, leaving Eleanor mostly alone.
Her daughter and family were strangers. She'd never gotten word or card from the impatient grandchildren. Her daughter had come over the day before to stock the small fridge with snacks and the cupboards with bed and bath necessities. They didn't visit much. The daughter was a shy quiet type. When she did stay for an hour or more they seldom spoke more than a few words. Eleanor didn't want to seem ungrateful, but wondered how she and her daughter had grown so apart.
Eleanor supposed, if she were to wish for something other than a healthy young body, she’d wish for a friend with whom she might share a few stimulating thoughts. She didn't want to end in some rest home in a wheel chair looking at other old women. She would have agreed if someone had called her a stubborn self-directed woman.
At four in the afternoon, a lady from Meals on Wheels rang the bell. Eleanor turned off the TV and invited her in, a routine well-established over, how many she wasn't sure, but some ten years, perhaps. The volunteers had changed from time to time, but they were always decent people. At first, Eleanor made an attempt to learn about their lives, asking after family and friends. Now, she was just pleased to have their company.
Napkin on lap, she sat on the couch and ate breaded fish, coleslaw and mashed potatoes with gravy, somewhat amused by the menus but always grateful for the care. The Meals on Wheels lady left a best seller about crooked lawyers, politicians and foreign intrigue. She finished the meal and thanked the lady for the library service. Eleanor reminded the lady to take the unfinished love story with her. After refilling Eleanor's water glass, the lady let herself out and locked the door behind her.
Eleanor turned the TV on to watch a public television special about the history of the Panama Canal. She fondly recalled her first boat passage through those amazing locks. By eight-thirty, she was ready for bed. Her life had become so punctual one could have set a clock by it.
It took her thirty minutes to prepare for bed, time to towel wash, dry herself and brush her teeth. She was glad she still had them. She got into her light flannel sleeping gown and, using the walker for support, sat on the bed. Feet free of slippers, she said her prayers. She included the lady from Meals-on-Wheels as well as her daughter and family, and the only other still living widow from the old group. Occasionally she'd spoken with the woman on the phone but hadn't seen her for seven years. She wondered if life was being as tough on her. She turned out the bedside lamp, eased under covers, and, God willing, she thought, made a mental note to call her the next day.
Days like these passed slowly for Eleanor Drew Nelson. She'd quit counting because they reminded her of things she’d prefer to ignore. Some days were more difficult, but each left her with less and less to anticipate. There were fewer calls from her daughter and none from old friends and she wondered if the last widow had passed away. She didn't read newspapers because of bad news and obituaries, and had even lost interest in the Travel Channel. Eleanor was retreating into the gray space she'd dreaded for years.
When the doorbell rang on a very warm afternoon, the unexpected sound made her open her eyes … and for a moment she thought she'd been dreaming. The doorbell rang again and Eleanor, on the couch, struggled to sit up.
"Yes?" she said, her voice somewhat raspy from disuse. "Who's there? I can't come to the door." She struggled to get her feet into slippers, and put on her glasses. "Just a moment," she said, but she wasn’t irritated. She attempted to stand with the walker, "I don't move very fast. You'll have to be patient." She made it to the locked screen door and found herself looking down at a redheaded girl with a dog. "You rang my doorbell?"
"Yes, ma'am." The girl was holding a small clipboard and pencil in front of her as if offering reason for disturbing the woman's afternoon nap. "Would you like to order some Girl Scout Cookies? We're having a contest. They're real good cookies … ."
The girl had the greenest eyes Eleanor Drew Nelson could ever remember seeing, but then, she was sure her memory was failing. "Cookies?" She leaned on the walker. "What kind of cookies?" The child held up a list so Eleanor could read it through the screen door. "I can't read the small print … ."
"Thin Mints, Caramel Delights, Reduced Fat Lemon Pastry Creams, Peanut Butter Sandwiches, Classic Shortbread, Animal Treasures, Friendship Circles … they're real good cookies … wouldn't you like to buy a few boxes to help out the Girl Scouts?"
Eleanor looked down at the girl and at the soft-eyed Irish Setter that sat quietly next to her on the porch. Both girl and dog shared the same color hair.
"Is that your dog?" she asked, touched by the tender Norman Rockwell tableau.
"Yes, ma'am … this is Joey … he's a nice dog. He's my best friend."
"He's a pretty dog … ." Eleanor said, remembering the miniature collie she'd had when she was little.
"Wanna pet him? He doesn't bite or anything … he's real nice to nice people … ."
"Well," Eleanor paused, smiled and turned the safety lock on the door, "I suppose it's all right."
Joey accepted the pat on his head with a tongue-out series of pants. His dark eyes rolled up in gratitude. Eleanor looked at the girl. "What's your name, dear?"
"Sarah." The girl blushed and pivoted self-consciously. "Sarah Ann McBride. I'm gonna be ten next week. Do you wanna order some cookies?"
"You're a good salesperson, Sarah … how can I say no to someone as sweet as you?" Sarah blushed. "Do I need to give you money now?"
"No, ma'am … just tell me what kind you want an' you can pay for them when I deliver them. You have to sign on this page next to what you're ordering." Sarah held out the clipboard and pen.
"Well, which do you like best?" Eleanor watched Joey watch each move Sarah made.
"Caramel Delights." Sarah, lower lip clenched between teeth, shyly looked up into Eleanor's face.
Guessing the girl was waiting for her to place an order, Eleanor said, "Put me down for a box of those … and could you hold the page for me while I sign my name?"
The question was so sad, Eleanor nearly laughed. "Well, I suppose I could order two … ."
"We only sell them once a year," Sarah continued, trying to see past Eleanor into the room. "Is that some kinda bear on the floor?"
Eleanor hadn't thought about the rug for so long it had become just one more part of the room, but the question took her back to her first trip to Canada with Albert in 1927.
"Yes, dear, it's an old bearskin rug. My husband gave it to me a long time ago when he took me to Canada."
"Canada?" Sarah was beaming. "You've been all the way to Canada? We're studying all about Canada in school. Golly, did you like it there?"
"Oh my, dear … that was so long ago. I'm sure things have changed."
"I have to do a book report on Canada," Sarah said, twisting again. "Do you know any good books about Canada?"
Once again Eleanor was set adrift by the girl's bubbling energy and the stream of questions that awoke thoughts long left behind. "I'm not sure I could recommend a book. "
Sarah interrupted, "I could write about what you tell me. Our teacher said it was okay to write about stuff people told us who lived there."
"You mean, an interview?" Watching the exuberant child, Eleanor felt a smile fill her cheeks. "You want to interview me?"
Sarah was chewing her lower lip so hard Eleanor feared the girl would make it bleed. "Now don't bite your lip," she said, still smiling, gently touching the girl's red curls. "Perhaps if you brought your mother along?"
"You'd tell me all about Canada?"
"As much as I can remember, dear. My memory isn't very good these days."
"Can I come back later this afternoon? My mommy has to work. She doesn't get home 'til after five."
"Whenever you like," Eleanor said, enjoying the unaccustomed sensation of smiling.
Sarah Ann McBride and Joey were off on a run. Standing in the open screen door, Eleanor watched until they disappeared.
"My goodness, what energy." She worked her way back inside but didn’t latch the lock, remembering Meals-on-Wheels would be arriving at four.
Instead of returning to the couch, she made her way to the bookshelf, stood a long time, leaning on her walker, looking at titles. When she found the volume on northeastern Canada, she wiggled it out from between two other leather-bound books. It was heavy so she set it down on the table next to her and perched on the edge of the nearest chair. By the time Meals-on-Wheels arrived, she'd perused a quarter of the now brittle book.
"Why, Ms. Nelson," said the Meals-on-Wheels lady, "you're up. Do you want to take your supper there?"
"If you'd be so kind as to bring me two of those pillows from the couch," Eleanor said, practicing the smile.
Propped as comfortably as possible, Eleanor ate while the nice lady performed a few chores. When she finished with the meatloaf, broccoli and scalloped potatoes, Eleanor went back to the book.
"See you tomorrow," said the lady, with a wave. "I'll lock the door as I leave."
"Please don't," Eleanor interjected, "I'm expecting company in a little while and it's easier if I don't have to get up and down so often … ."
"As you wish. We'll see you tomorrow."
Eleanor ignored the retreating footsteps that had always given her such a sense of loss, knowing there would be no one to speak with until the following day. This time she was back in the book, pictures and memories brought smiles and tears. There were the photos some man had taken of Albert and her at Niagara Falls. They were dressed in fur-collared coats and fur hats, snow almost up to their knees. Albert was so handsome … I look so young. Where has it all gone … .
The tap on the door made her look up. Sarah Ann McBride was looking in through the screen, hands cupped at the sides of eyes.
"Hello? It's me again."
"Hello," Eleanor said, "just come in … the door isn't locked."
The screen door opened and Sarah Ann entered, mother in tow. "This is my Mommy," she said with a smile. "Can Joey come in, too?"
Over mother's protests, Eleanor nodded and Joey wagged his way in next to Sarah.
"I'm Shana McBride." The young woman, clearly Sarah Ann's mother by the color of eyes and hair, was a lovely picture of what Sarah could look forward to when growing up. "I hope Sarah hasn't been a bother. She's a good girl, but she has so much energy."
"I was just thinking the same thing, but it was a compliment, believe me. I'm Eleanor Nelson. I'm pleased you came over. So many parents don't seem to have enough time for their children's education."
"What could be more important?" Shana McBride’s smile told a loving story.
"Well … please sit and make yourselves comfortable." Eleanor placed a hand on Joey's golden-red head. Joey immediately sat down next to her. Sarah inched closer to Eleanor's chair.
"Is that a book about Canada?"
"It is." Eleanor turned the book so the girl could see the monochrome photos.
"Look, Mommy! These are real old pictures! Who are these people?"
"That's a picture of my husband and me at Port Carling in Ontario. It was quite a long time ago, dear."
"Oh, Mommy! Look at these beautiful pictures! Did you see the bearskin rug, Mommy? Mrs. Nelson told me her husband gave it to her. It's a real bearskin, Mommy. She's been everywhere in Canada!"
"Well, now … not everywhere," Eleanor chuckled, touched by the girl's exuberance.
Ms. McBride joined Sarah on the floor next to Eleanor.
"Will you tell me stories about where you went?" Sarah squirmed with runaway curiosity. "Tell me everything an' I'll write it all down. This is going to be the best report ever!"
Notebook on lap, she sat, pencil poised. Her mother sighed and smiled.
"I'll try to answer your questions, dear … and I'll do my best to remember some interesting things."
"Don't let Sarah tire you, Mrs. Nelson. She can wear out a welcome mat. We don't want to take advantage of your kind hospitality."
Shaking her head, but not too hard, Eleanor looked into Shana McBride's greener than Irish eyes. "Oh, my dear … she's no trouble at all. I wish I could tell you how much this visit means to me … ."
In that fleeting moment, both understood.
There were blinding white snowstorms, canoe trips on cobalt blue summer lakes, great herds of caribou and giant moose in shoulder deep spring rivers. Fresh-out-of-river-fish cooked over glowing campfires, wolves howled at moonlit nights … native peoples told stories of ancestor's spirits … listeners crouched closer together. In the eyes of a child, northern lights danced on the old lady's slowly paced words.
The McBrides stayed an hour before Sarah's mother stood and took her daughter's hand. "Perhaps Mrs. Nelson will let you come back and visit another day? It's all right with me, Mrs. Nelson. I just want to be sure she doesn't ruin her welcome … ."
Filled with the first warm glow she could remember in years, Eleanor shook her head. "Not a chance of that happening," she said, with what had become a most welcome smile.
"Good night, Mrs. Nelson," Sarah said, lingering at the door. "Do you want Joey to stay with you tonight?"
Overwhelmed by the little girl's sincerity, it was difficult to hold back tears. Eleanor smiled instead. "I don't have the proper amenities, but thank you for offering, dear. Joey is a wonderful friend."
"He's the best friend I got," beamed Sarah Ann McBride. "He'll be your best friend, too!"
"Good night, Mrs. Nelson. Should I lock your door before I close it?"
"Yes please, and thank you so much. I wish I was a better hostess … ."
Shana McBride's response was the best hug Eleanor had gotten in years. "You're an inspiration, Mrs. Nelson … and not just to Sarah. No library on earth offers what you've given us tonight. Sleep well."
That night, Eleanor Drew Nelson had three more to include in her prayers when she sat on the edge of her turned-down bed.
"And thank You," she said, before the task of getting under bedcovers, a move that seemed easier than the night before. "Thank You for hearing my prayers."