Rendezvous at The Lake
Ruth Z. Deming
Her birthday was January 29. At least she still remembered that. Someone told her she had turned eighty-seven. Must have been her nephew. Yes, for sure it was Larry. What a godsend. When she lived in her own home on Arundel Lane she had visitors aplenty. Now they were too busy or too dead to visit at Rosewood Farms – what a laughable name! It conned people into believing the food was farm-fresh and the coffee hot and strong.
Larry would never abandon his Aunt Carmella. He talked slowly to her on their drives to the family doctor, the cardiologist – her mitral valve replacement kept the blood flowing the right way – and the audiologist, where she had yet to wear the tan-colored hearing aid Dr. Goldstein assured her no one would notice.
Driving with Larry was the only good thing about being alive. Of course she never mentioned that to a soul. She had a mind of her own where secrets lay buried. She was losing her mind, she knew. Slowly, like bark peeling off a tree.
In her day, Carmella had been a brilliant woman, founder of Artist’s Wonderland
, an award-winning national magazine that she sold for two million dollars when she and Ernie decided to retire and travel around the world. Philadelphia Magazine
did a huge color spread on them in their art-filled home in Chestnut Hill.
It was not to be. Pancreatic cancer killed her husband three months after he was diagnosed. She would never forget the smell in the house. Bed pans, alcohol swabs, and a religious candle smelling of peppermint she kept lit in the den. How she loved that man.
At last her secret burned its way out. It was time.
She sat in the kitchen of her two-bedroom apartment at Rosewood Farms, the morning light splashing its way across the white table. She picked up a pen that wrote in purple. In her loop-filled handwriting she wrote, “Dear Ones, I am taking a trip. Do not worry about me. Love you so! Carmella.”
She had waited as long as possible, until she was sure the last of the snows had come and gone.
Into a large paisley pocketbook she packed the barest necessities: a Masson-Pierson Hairbrush that massaged her scalp with its pointy black bristles, a tangerine red lipstick that tasted like candy, and a blue pill box that contained half a dozen pills, including her heart medication. Gracious! She wanted to stay alive during her secret adventure. She also put some food she’d prepared early that morning into her bag.
She locked her door and walked slowly to the front desk, which she thought of as the escape hatch to the large prison that Rosewood Gardens had become. For two years, she’d been one of the few women – only ten men lived in the Gardens – who walked all by herself. No cane or walker necessary. Then she took a fall, twisted her ankle, and agreed to use a cane. The on-site physical therapist had taught her how to walk with a cane and Carmella simply resigned herself to it.
At the front desk she signed herself out and hoped no one noticed she hadn’t listed a return time. She looked at the uniformed guard, a stern black woman who looked to her like a soldier in the North Korean army. No one entered or left Rosewood without passing through the gates of Cerberus.
Carmella was immensely proud of her thick shock of hair. She had it colored right here at the Gardens, a caramel color, like her name. Slipping on her glasses, which she tried not to use as a point of honor, she looked to see if he was outside waiting for her. He was, so she took them off and let them dangle on her chest. Beautiful eyeglasses that she had painted. Yes, the cane also.
She clopped toward the sliding glass doors that opened at her approach. A shiny burgundy Lincoln Town Car sat demure as a crouching cat. She waved to the driver with her cane. The uniformed gentleman was standing at attention, took her paisley bag, and then opened the back door.
“May I sit in the front, please?” she asked.
“Of course, Madame,” he said.
She cringed at the use of “madame” as she allowed him to take her arm and open the front door. She sat the way she had been taught. Butt on seat and then swivel around for her reluctant legs to follow.
His name, from the license on the window, was “Joshua Mark Epstein.” A nice Jewish boy, she thought, but of course would say nothing.
“Do you need my credit card?” she asked.
“Please,” he said, extending his hand.
They had no idea how much her little trip would cost so they agreed on one-thousand dollars to start.
“Don’t worry, darling, I’ve got the rest of the money.”
“I’m sure you do, Madame.”
“Josh, you must do me a favor. Please call me Carmella. We’re going to spend a lot of time together.”
He looked at her, smiled, and said, “Of course, Carmella.”
He watched as she put on her seat belt. Brown-haired Josh, with curls cresting above his head, had an attractive profile, Carmella noticed. He turned on the GPS. It spoke softly in a woman’s British accent.
“What fun!” said Carmella as the car cruised out of the assisted living facility.
She watched as the scenery flew by like a movie reel: the newly expanded Whole Foods, favorite restaurants with huge plate glass windows, the movie theater, and Planet Fitness. Then, the huge hospital Abington Memorial with its magnificent columns and cupola that fairly brushed the sky. The final stop before eternity. She began to doze, the way her three babies had whenever they drove in the car, and woke up to find themselves speeding along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
She had forgotten to tell Josh she wanted to visit Ernie’s grave.
“I wonder,” she said in her high, melodious voice, “is it possible to visit Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem?”
She watched for his reaction.
He cleared his throat.
“That will be fine, mad- I mean Carmella.”
When they arrived, she guided him to the grave site of her husband.
The grounds were filled with trees of every variety, the leaves of spring newly unfurling so many different shades of green. A feast, she thought, for a Cezanne or a Frederic Church with his golden palette. The ground was moist, as if a rain had newly fallen. Carmella rarely knew what went on outside the facility. The only time she left was when her nephew or one of her children drove her to a doctor’s appointment. With her declining mind, she thought of her life as essentially over, though she knew enough to keep mum about it.
Eighty-seven, if she remembered correctly.
Josh helped her out of the car.
“My cane, please? It’s in the back seat.”
She walked over to Ernie’s grave. This was the very first time she’d been here. She had feared she would be so overcome by grief she would have a bout of hysterics or a heart attack. Why did God allow his aged ones to suffer so much pain? Well, it wouldn’t be long until she’d ask Him in person.
Leaning her cane against the smooth gray granite, she rubbed her hands across the cold stone. Someone, perhaps her children or grandchildren, had laid a pot of snow-white chrysanthemums as an offering to their beloved Ernesto M. Calabreze (1928 – 2013).
Carmella pointed her cane to a spot in the ground next to her husband’s gravestone.
“That’s me,” she smiled. “In a few years.”
Josh helped her back in the car.
“You’re very nice,” she said.
“My pleasure, Carmella.”
She had whispered not a word to her husband during their visit. What was there to say? This was a couple who needed no words to show their love and admiration for one another. Ernie would be proud of her adventure.
As a child whenever she and her family were leaving Philadelphia for the Jersey shore she was frightened they would die in a car crash. The same feeling engulfed her now as they sped down the Turnpike.
The bright green exit signs flew by. She was unable to read them. She squinted but 87 years had taken a toll on her vision.
She didn’t want to be a nuisance but found herself asking like a child, “How far away are we?”
“According to the signs we’re only thirty miles away, I’d say half an hour.”
She nodded happily and fell asleep again.
She heard Josh whistling.
“We’re here,” he said in a merry voice.
They entered a sleepy little town outside Harrisburg called Trout. Trout, Pennsylvania.
“Oh, it’s still here,” cried Carmella. “One thing that didn’t die on me.” They drove through downtown with its CVS drug store, a wine shop, and a Wawa convenience store.
“Keep going,” she said, explaining there was a lake where people fished in trout season. Her family, originally from Harrisburg, would drive over and they’d spend the whole day fishing.
“Mama would pack lunch in a straw basket,” she pointed to her own paisley bag in the back seat. “What a lunch we had! Egg salad sandwiches on soft white bread – that white Wonder Bread with the colorful balloons on the package, if I remember correctly, carrot and celery sticks, and frosted cupcakes for dessert.”
“I sure do like cupcakes,” Josh said.
“Well, you’ll buy some with the tip I give you. Now straight on toward the lake,” she said joyfully. “I don’t mind telling you, Josh, darling, that this is the happiest I’ve been since Ernie was still with us.”
They drove down a two-lane road surrounded by grass that had turned emerald green and was studded with dandelions, their white puffs sailing along like little boats in the wind. Pink redbud trees, their tiny little buds like baby birds, stretched toward the sky. All this Carmella was able to see with her poor tired eyes. She explained to Josh that he should park “wherever you want” and she’d come find him when she was through.
“How long do you intend to be?” he asked.
“However long it takes,” she laughed. “And you are not to worry about me.”
“I promise I won’t,” he said. “I’ve learned that much about you.”
He opened the door for her and fetched her cane and her paisley bag.
Unable to stop smiling – and feeling the delightful stretching of her rouged cheeks - she walked on the side of the road on the fragrant grass. She stood still and sniffed the aroma. The lake had a certain smell she remembered. Of fish, certainly, and a taint of metal and the perfume of lilacs. Far away, people were fishing, holding their long poles. As she approached she could make out men in caps, families and couples, their talk and laughter spilling into the sunlit air.
Yes, it’s just as I remembered.
Eighty years ago, imagine that, before her family moved to the Philadelphia area.
Cane in hand, she walked with her one-two-step farther out onto the grass and found a picnic table. From her paisley bag she pulled out paper plates and utensils which she set on the table. Out came the egg salad sandwiches on white bread, the carrot and celery sticks, and the chocolate-frosted cupcake. She began to eat slowly, very slowly, as she watched the fishermen and then the horizon between Trout Lake and the vast blue sky. She knew what she would do next but was not quite ready.
A child trotted by and Carmella waved. The little one waved back. Carmella patted her thick mound of hair and brushed the crumbs off her blouse. She put all the trash into the same plastic bag, then looked all around her. Happiness flooded every limb of her body. She was as happy as when she was a carefree child.
Shading her eyes, she gazed up at that wondrous blue sky and waited for the clouds to scoot by. She gave a little belch, laughing as she did so. The first cloud, sailing onward toward the right, slowly drifted by.
The little girl who had passed by returned with her mother.
“Hello,” said the child, unable to say her L’s.
“Hello,” said Carmella. “I am Miss Carmella. Who are you, little princess?”
The child was suddenly shy.
“C’mon, Annie,” said her mom. “Tell her your name.”
“Ann-ie,” she said slowly.
“Can you guess what I’m doing?” asked Carmella.
“Are you sick, like my grandma?”
“Far from it, child,” said Carmella. “I’m watching the clouds pass by and,” she paused for dramatic effect, “I’m making shapes out of them.”
She pointed upward.
“What do you think that big fat one looks like?” she asked.
Without hesitation, Annie answered, “A elephant!”
“Yes, darling,” Carmella said. “I can certainly see that.” She so wished she had another cupcake, but it wasn’t necessary. An ice cream truck was parked off by the lake, surrounded by chattering children.
“Pardon me, my dears,” she said to mom and daughter.
Carmella stood up the way she had been taught. It was not a pretty sight but had a grace all its own, aided by her cane. Slinging her bag over her arm, she walked on to Trout Lake. The sunshine glinted off the lake and it was easy to imagine what she wanted to see.
There she was in her yellow sundress with a long fishing pole bobbing in her hands. Daddy was off to the left, humming softly, and little brother Ronnie was on her right. “Got one!” she heard him holler.
“Hold it steady, son,” said Daddy. “You can do it!”
She stood leaning on her cane, watching the entire exciting scene. Perhaps she should get her feet wet? Not today, - she’d had enough of an adventure that she hoped would stay in her mind until she, too, met Daddy and Mommy, little Ronnie, and her beloved Ernesto, in a land beyond the stars.
With a smile on her face, she walked up to the burgundy Lincoln Town Car. A crowd had gathered around. Her photograph was taken dozens of times. And a microphone from ABC News pushed in her face.
“What’s going on?” she asked Joshua.
He cleared his throat. “Just the fact that you’re, um….”
“Oh, that!” she snapped. “That I’m an old lady.”
She stood and faced the paparazzi and spoke with conviction.
“Not today, boys,” she said. “Not today. I’m an old woman and I’ve got to get back to my shoe.”
Joshua opened the door and they sped away. She leaned back in her seat. “What a day this has been, Joshua. It feels like it had no beginning and will never end. Do you mind if I hum? It reminds me of my father.”
She hummed until she fell asleep.
When they pulled into Rosewood Farms she thought for one quick moment she was back home in Chestnut Hill, and Ernie was sitting in his overstuffed chair smoking a pipe.